Editor’s note: This article, reported by Anthony Shadid right after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, was first published on March 20, 2003.
At 5:34 a.m. explosions thundered over a city still asleep. The attack caught Baghdad’s defenders by surprise: A minute passed before air raid sirens began to wail, and more time still before the answer of antiaircraft fire. For the next hour, long pauses were interrupted by tracer bullets racing across the sky and more antiaircraft rounds.
Instead of the “shock and awe” of a massive air assault that many Baghdad residents still expect to arrive, the opening volley of the war seemed a brief and almost modest tremor on the southern outskirts of the capital. No destruction was visible from the heart of the city, only a fireball rising on the horizon followed by a column of black smoke.
Officials moved quickly to dispel any rumors that President Saddam Hussein, the apparent target of the attack, might had been killed or injured. State television repeated an announcement through the early morning that Hussein would address the country shortly.
He appeared nearly three hours after the missiles struck. Wearing a military uniform and owlish reading glasses he rarely uses in public, Hussein called on Iraqis to resist the U.S. attackers. Reading gravely from a stenographer’s pad, he denounced the American president as “the little Bush” and proclaimed that “Iraq will be victorious and our nation and our humanity will triumph. Evil will be defeated.”
The rallying speech was rich with religious language and the refrain, “God is great.”
In the early morning, Baghdad seemed more ghost town than garrison. Stray dogs wandered downtown streets and the occasional truck, taxi and car sped along the banks of the Tigris River. Although air raid sirens continued, the soft murmur of the call to prayer drifted across a city that had been bracing for an attack for days.
By 7:30 a.m., token traffic had returned to Baghdad’s streets. At Firdaus Square, where the arm of a towering statue of Hussein pointed down a largely empty Saadoun Street, a handful of cars and buses circled unhurriedly.
On Wednesday, in anticipation of an attack, heavily armed militiamen of Hussein’s ruling Baath Party fanned out across Baghdad, strolling the streets, manning sandbagged positions and keeping nervous watch over the city. Some Iraqis made last-minute purchases of vegetables and gasoline, but most stayed at home or plotted their escape to the relative safety of the countryside.
Blue-uniformed police at intersections wore helmets and took up assault rifles, and small knots of soldiers were spotted wandering the city. The largest militia presence was in Baghdad’s poor Shiite Muslim neighborhood, the most likely scene of dissent. Residents reported that many of the militiamen had fled their posts as hours passed before the U.S. deadline for Hussein’s exile.
The Iraqi army’s elite Republican Guard troops were not visible in the capital in any significant presence, lending credence to reports that the heaviest defenses had been set up in concentric rings outside Baghdad and Hussein’s nearby home town, Tikrit.
One antiaircraft gun was seen atop a secondary school, and other emplacements were spotted at the southern entrances to the city, on the road to Kuwait. But tanks, artillery and even troop movements were nowhere to be seen.
Rumors swirled of high-level defections, even as Iraqi officials maintained that U.S. forces faced “certain death.”
“In this conflict, no matter what technology the American armed forces have, the will of the Iraqi people and the determination of the armed forces will prevail, God willing,” Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said at a news conference arranged hastily on Wednesday to dispel rumors that he had fled to Irbil, in the Kurdish-controlled north.
Even as some Iraqis predicted in private that authority might crumble in days, the leadership maintained a largely uniform appearance of confidence and swagger. While lower-ranking officials acknowledged that Iraq faced overwhelming odds, the information minister, Mohammed Saeed Sahhaf, promised a long, bloody war launched by an overconfident U.S. government.
“They are deceiving their soldiers and their officers, that aggression against Iraq and invading Iraq will be like a picnic,” Sahhaf said. “This is a very stupid idea they’re telling their soldiers.” After days of frantic buying, many Baghdad residents stayed home. Saadoun Street, a major thoroughfare, was empty.
In upscale neighborhoods like Karrada and Arasat, stores were emptied of their high-priced consumer items -- computers, big-screen televisions, air conditioners and stereos. In poor markets, stragglers purchased plastic jerrycans for fuel and the last supplies of food. Cars lined up at gas stations selling fuel for $ 1 a liter, a sharp increase from usual prices.
As residents braced for an attack, there were still a few scenes of tranquility. Shiite Muslims paced leisurely around the Kadhimiya shrine, one of Baghdad’s most sacred sites. Men sat on the stone floor in conversation, rolling their worry beads. Children chased each other. A small girl, 16-month-old Dahra, chased pigeons flocking for seed spread along the ground.
“We don’t worry about ourselves, we worry about our children,” said Ahmed Abdul-Ridda, her father.
Others looked anxiously to the days ahead. One man walking out of the shrine’s massive wood doors said over and over, “Please, God, do not make this my last visit. Do not deprive us of visiting another time.”
Sitting in a corner, Ali Saleh Hussein, a blind, 73-year-old man, took a drag on his cigarette. In 1991, he fled to the countryside. This time, he said, he had no car, and no one to go to.
“I’m blind. Where can I go? Who’s going to take me?” he asked. “I hear there will be a curfew. No one can leave their home. I’ll be like other people. I’ll be in a prison.”