HILLA, IRAQ, FEB. 3 -- "There's no safe place in Iraq, no place to run," said Hadi Sultan, 56, a resident of Baghdad, summing up the feeling of many Iraqis who fled the capital at the beginning of the Persian Gulf War to what they thought were safe places.
"I moved to Hilla after the first attack on Baghdad, thinking it was safe because there are no installations of military value here," he said.
"Next day, bang!" he said. "The house next door was obliterated."
On a tour of Hilla, near the ancient city of Babylon, 60 miles south of Baghdad, and a nearby village, correspondents heard stories that underlined the chaos left by the U.S.-led air war, now in its 18th day.
The tour was arranged by the Information Ministry to back up Iraq's charges that allied air strikes and missile attacks have devastated residential areas and killed civilians, despite Washington's insistence that the raids have been aimed exclusively at military targets. Allied military spokesmen say that even with precise guided weapons there may be civilian casualties.
Iraq, which has fired 29 Scud missiles at Israel and 28 at Saudi Arabia, has given few details of casualties from the allied bombing beyond saying that 90 soldiers and 320 civilians have been killed.
In Hilla, correspondents were taken to a residential area hard hit by allied bombs as well as a secondary school and a clinic in the city center. Blackboards in the school and sheets of medical reports in the clinic left no doubt for this reporter that these buildings were as billed.
In the nearby village of Haswa, a crater about 50 yards in diameter marked the impact of what appeared to have been 1,100-pound bombs in an area of one-story houses surrounded by low walls. In both places, residents gave varying casualty figures, with 35 to 40 dead frequently mentioned in Haswa.
According to Iraqi figures, allied air strikes have diminished over the last few days, apparently because most targets of economic or military value have been destroyed.
But a huge movement of people continues because of the war. By some estimates, more than a million of Baghdad's 4 million inhabitants fled at the outbreak of the war. Over the last few days, thousands reportedly have returned to Baghdad.
"When I left on Jan. 17 the entire 40-mile stretch of the road from the capital to Khalis was packed bumper to bumper," said one Baghdad resident. Khalis is the junction of the road north to Kirkuk and Sulaymaniyah, both cities that had been considered safer than Baghdad.
"What I found in Sulaymaniyah after a few days was air raid, air raid. Just as in Baghdad the water supply stopped, electricity was cut, life was just as miserable as in the capital," the resident said. "So I returned. Might as well be miserable in familiar surroundings," he added.