Dispatches

The Bombing of Baghdad

Bombs over Baghdad

Today Baghdad is ringed with fire. The fire comes from burning oil, poured into defensive trenches that have been dug all around the outskirts of the city. Iraqi soldiers set the oil alight and a thick black smoke has begun to fill the sky. The Iraqis are hoping to obscure targets from American pilots, a hopeless plan because most bombs are guided by GPS coordinates, not by sight.

I watched last night’s bombing from the roof of a high-rise on the west bank of the Tigris River. The scale of the attack dwarfed what we’d seen the two previous nights.

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Tomahawk missiles took out four of Saddam’s presidential palaces and other government buildings, including the Defense Ministry, with extraordinary precision. Some of the buildings seemed to implode and collapse; others went up in columns of fire when hit. As a precaution, colleagues and I duct-taped the windows of our rooms, wrapped our communications equipment in aluminum foil. The strikes were terrifying. One was as close as 300 yards, and it blew out windows in our building.

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What we witnessed was surely the most sophisticated use of firepower in military history. The missiles, which are launched from ships in the Persian Gulf, come from nowhere. For the first half-hour, Iraqi positions responded with anti-aircraft fire—a completely ineffectual response, even before many of those positions were obliterated by American bombs.

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Last night’s bombing infuriated minders from the Iraqi Security Service, who continue to keep a close watch on us and who sometimes lash out at Americans. At one point, an enraged Iraqi minder grabbed cameras from a photographer I’ve been working with and threw them off the roof of the building. Others cursed at President Bush, using a familiar local insult involving his conjugal relations with a member of his family.

Many of the buildings that were targeted in last night’s bombardment are cheek-by-jowl with high-rise apartments. Though we couldn’t see directly, it seems certain that there were significant numbers of civilian casualties.

When dawn broke this morning, we set off to see what we could of the damage. In the streets, loudspeakers broadcast Muslim prayers. Stores were open, but Iraqi currency with Saddam’s picture on it has become essentially worthless. Prices in foreign currency rise by the hour. A bottle of vodka that cost $7 two days ago now costs $45.

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On the streets, hostility toward Saddam is increasingly evident, if seldom articulated. There is kindness and rage toward Americans, in equal measure. One soldier kissed me on the cheek. Other people point imaginary weapons at us and say, “Pow-pow!” It seems clear that an American occupation will be met with at least some significant resistance—and the probability of casualties.

Throughout the day, the sounds of intermittent bombing could be heard. We made the round of hospitals, attempting to find out about civilians injured and killed. Though denied entry in some places, I spoke to a doctor at one hospital who said they had taken in 80 wounded.

The position of foreign journalists here is increasingly tenuous. Yesterday, CNN was ordered out, along with German television. They set off for the Jordanian border just as last night’s bombing started.

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As we walked through the city, my photographer friend and I were taken into what might be called protective custody and held for four hours. We were offered a choice between serving as human shields in government buildings or heading by car for the Iranian or Syrian border—which is impossible, since there are no roads, and incredibly unwise, since American forces might be bombing fleeing traffic. Eventually, we were returned to our hotel, with the warning that we could be expelled or drafted as unwilling human shields at any time

As for the voluntary human shields—cantankerous 70-year-olds from California and 22-year-old hippies from Spain—none of them appear to have been harmed in last night’s bombing. So far, oddly, the American bombs have not targeted Baghdad’s communications facilities and electrical grid, which is where the shields are staying. They may not be so lucky tonight.

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