Baghdad reflects on cost of war

Thursday, April 3, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The passengers on the upper deck of bus No. 4 turned their heads in unison to look at the carnage left by the missile attack on the Bab al-Moazam telephone exchange. Many shook their heads in disbelief, and some stared with their mouths agape. But no one said a word.

The air campaign on Baghdad and the advance of U.S. troops toward the Iraqi capital have left the city's 5 million people torn between resignation, indignation and fear.

"What does Bush want from us?" screamed an Iraqi woman in a black chador, standing next to the ruins of the Baghdad telephone exchange. "Saddam is our choice, and even if he will have us survive on just bread, we still want him.

"Would Bush do this to his people or his family?"

The daily air raids on Baghdad, carried out by Tomahawk cruise missiles as well as bombers, have hit a range of targets. Some, like residential areas and phone exchanges, touched the lives of ordinary people.

Others targeted Saddam Hussein's regime -- presidential palaces, intelligence and security complexes -- or military targets like camps of the Republic Guard to the south of the capital.

Beaten bravery

Many of Baghdad's residents like to say that, after two wars and countless bombings over the past two decades, they are used to bombs and missiles raining on their city. But two weeks into the U.S.-led air campaign on Baghdad, this bravado has all but disappeared.

The old black-and-white photographs that once decorated the walls of the storied al-Shahbandar cafe on al-Motanabi street are gone -- stashed away in case of bombing. A picture of Saddam remains -- depicting him in military uniform, sipping tea.

Airstrikes on two crowded Baghdad markets last week -- which Iraq said killed more than 70 people and injured scores -- brought the reality of war ever closer.

"There were people being burned alive in their cars, headless bodies, human parts on the street and people screaming and running," said Hussein Rasheed al-Biari, whose brother Faris was among 14 civilians killed March 26.

"Even men who are known to be brave were running away in panic. Hell must be like that," he said. "Every time we leave our homes now, we are not sure whether we will make it back."

Faris al-Biari was under a Toyota taxi fixing its exhaust pipe when what the Iraqi regime says was a cruise missile hit, according to his brother Hussein. "The car caught fire and he remained under until we put out the fire. By the time we got him out, the upper part of his body was completely burned."

The same blast also injured one of Faris al-Biari's three children, 10-year-old Seif, who had been working with his father at the auto repair shop.

Despite the fear and destruction, Baghdad's resilience remains evident. After the initial shock of the war's opening days, life in Baghdad has steadily crept back to normalcy, albeit after a fashion.

There are traffic jams in many parts of the city. Markets are crowded and shoppers are out in the thousands. Garbage trucks are back at work and municipal workers hose down Saddam statues and other landmarks to remove the coat of sand left by a two-day sandstorm last week.

Still, the dark smoke billowing from two dozen fuel fires started by authorities to conceal targets in the city serves as a reminder of the perils surrounding Baghdad, together with the sound of explosions and occasional burst of anti-aircraft fire echoing overhead.

"I cannot look to see what's happening," said Majid Mustafa, who makes a living driving a double-decker, Chinese-made red bus for the city council. "I must drive on, or else I'll crash."

Traveling on bus No. 4 to work, 50-year-old Fadel al-Hashemi had a different take on life under the bombs. "Fear is a basic sentiment," he said. "Fear makes you cautious, but the will of God is above everything."

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