Dispatches

Live From Baghdad

BAGHDAD, 6:30 a.m.—At around 4 a.m. Baghdad time, under a full moon, I saw flashes of light high in the sky. These weren’t explosions: They looked like reconnaissance flights. At exactly 4:31 a.m., I saw the first strike. An oil refinery on the banks of the River Tigris blew up, throwing up huge flames that have since turned to pillars of smoke. The oil refinery, which looks destroyed, is about 1 kilometer from the hotel where I’m staying.

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Since then, I have heard and seen explosions—fairly small ones—every few minutes, mostly in the southern parts of the city, where many military targets are located. Plumes of smoke are visible everywhere. Anti-aircraft batteries started firing as soon as the assault began and haven’t stopped, but it’s not clear they are shooting at anything. While there is lots of anti-aircraft fire and small arms fire, the incoming attacks are limited.

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Throughout the bombing, we have been able to move around unaffected. The city feels remarkably calm. There is morning traffic in the streets, people walk the sidewalks. The security presence is surprisingly light—there wasn’t even a curfew last night. Communications networks, which will certainly be targets when the war gets busier, haven’t been hit yet. (This is why I am able to call this story out on a hotel landline.) Everyone was anticipating a massive aerial bombardment last night: This was much less than Iraqis expected.

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The mood on the streets remains somber and sullen. Stores are mostly closed, and those that are open have run out of duct tape, gasoline, and aluminum foil (which is wrapped around computers to shield them from e-bombs). People seem sad, resigned, sometimes resistant, mostly fearful. There is universal opposition to the war: George W. Bush’s name is spit with venom. Yesterday, a soldier saw me on the street and shouted, “George Bush, I fucked your mother. We will win this war because you are here. You are a human shield. We are all human shields and the world is with us.” Still, Iraq’s celebrated hospitality remains, even in wartime. I have been greeted with kisses and hugs as often as I have with people pointing fingers at me and yelling pow-pow.

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The Iraqi government has started turning on the 200-odd foreign journalists who remain here. German and Austrian TV crews were expelled yesterday, and a number of people, including Russian reporters, have been arrested for illegal use of satellite phones. (Iraq controls all satellite phones here.) Some journalists have been forced to return to a central hotel by their government minders, a hotel that had emptied because it’s too close to bomb targets, notably the ministry of information. A number of reporters have been arranging backup safe houses and even backup backup safe houses in case the situation gets really bad.

That could happen today. I’ve heard that the decision will be made today about whether journalists will be taken into “protective custody” and sent to “secure sites.” This is another way of saying today is the day we may be taken hostage.

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