Battle of Baghdad Begins
By Robert Fisk
06 April 2003
The Iraqi bodies were piled
high in the pick-up truck in front of me, army boots hanging over the
tailboard, a soldier with a rifle sitting beside them. Beside the highway,
a squad of troops was stacking grenades as the ground beneath us vibrated
with the impact of US air strikes. The area was called Qadisiya. It
was Iraq's last front line. Thus did the Battle for Baghdad enter its
first hours, a conflict that promises to be both dirty and cruel.
Beside the highway, the Iraqi
armoured vehicle was still smouldering, a cloud of blue-grey smoke rising
above the plane trees under which its crew had been sheltering. Two
trucks were burnt out on the other side of the road. The American Apache
helicopters had left just a few minutes before I arrived. A squad of
soldiers, flat on their stomachs, were setting up an anti-armour weapon
on the weed-strewn pavement, aiming at the empty airport motorway for
the first American tanks to come thrashing down the highway.
Thus did the Battle for Baghdad
enter its first hours yesterday, a conflict that promises to be both
dirty and cruel. Even the city's police force was sent to the front,
its officers parading in a fleet of squad cars through the central streets,
waving their newly issued Kalashnikov rifles from the windows.
What is one to say of such
frantic, impersonal and, yes, courageous chaos? A truck
crammed with more than a hundred Iraqi troops, many in blue uniforms,
all of them carrying rifles which gleamed in the morning sunlight, sped
past me towards the airport. A few made victory signs in the direction
of my car I confess to touching 145km an hour on the speedometer
but of course one had to ask what their hearts were telling them.
"Up the line to death" was the phrase that came to mind. Two
miles away, at the Yarmouk hospital, the surgeons stood in the car park
in blood-stained overalls; they had already handled their first intake
of military casualties.
A few hours later, an Iraqi
minister was to tell the world that the Republican Guard had just retaken
the airport from the Americans, that they were under fire but had won
"a great victory". Around Qadisiya, however, it didn't look
that way. Tank crews were gunning their T-72s down the highway past
the main Baghdad railway yards in a convoy of armoured personnel carriers
and Jeeps and clouds of thick blue exhaust fumes. The more modern T-82s,
the last of the Soviet-made fleet of battle tanks, sat hull down around
Jordan Square with a clutch of BMP armoured vehicles.
The Americans were coming.
The Americans were claiming to be in the inner suburbs of Baghdad
which was untrue; indeed, the story was designed, I'm sure, to provoke
panic and vulnerability among the Iraqis.
True or false, the stories
failed. Across vast fields of sand and dirt and palm groves, I saw batteries
of Sam-6 anti-aircraft missiles and multiple Katyusha rocket launchers
awaiting the American advance. The soldiers around them looked relaxed,
some smoking cigarettes in the shade of the palm trees or sipping fruit
juice brought to them by the residents of Qadisiya whose homes
heaven help them were now in the firing line.
But then there was the white-painted
Japanese pick-up truck that pulled out in front of my car. At first,
I thought the soldiers on the back were sleeping, covered in blankets
to keep them warm. Yet I had opened my car window to keep cool this
early summer morning and I realised that all the soldiers there
must have been 15 of them in the little truck were lying on top
of each other, all with their heavy black military boots dangling over
the tailboard. The two soldiers on the vehicles sat with their feet
wedged between the corpses. So did America's first victims of the day
go to their eternal rest.
"Today, we attack,"
the Minister of Information, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, was to announced
an hour later, and he reeled off a list of Iraqi "victories"
to sustain his country's morale. Seven British and American tanks destroyed
around Basra, four American personnel carriers and an American aircraft
destroyed near Baghdad. At the airport, the Iraqis "confronted
the enemy and slaughtered them". Or so we were told.
Well, an Iraqi friend of
mine who lives near the airport told me that he had seen a tank on fire,
a tank with a black "V" sign painted on its armour. The "V"
is the American symbol of "friendly force", intended to warn
their pilots from bombing their own soldiers by mistake. So this must
have been an American tank.
But Mr Sahaf's optimism got
the better of him. Yes, he told journalists in Baghdad, Doura was safe,
Qadisiya was safe. Yarmouk was safe. "Go and look for yourselves,"
he challenged. Ministry of Information officials were ashen-faced. And
when foreign correspondents were bussed off on this over-confident adventure,
they were turned back at the Yarmouk hospital and the ministry buses
firmly ordered to carry reporters back to their hotel.
But an earlier 35-minute
journey around the shell-embraced suburbs proved one thing yesterday:
that the Iraqis up till dusk at least were preparing to
fight the invaders. I found their 155mm artillery around the centre
of the city, close to the rail lines. One artillery piece was even hauled
up Abu Nawas Street beside the Tigris by a truck whose soldiers held
up their rifles and shouted their support for Saddam Hussein.
And all day, the air raids
continued. It gets confusing, amid the dust and smoke, all these new
targets and new pockets of ruination. Was the grey-powdered rubble in
Karada a building yesterday, or was it struck last week? The central
telephone exchange had taken another hit. So had the communications
centre in Yarmouk. And then I noticed, along the front line where the
Iraqi soldiers were preparing to become heroes or "martyrs"
or survivors the last an infinitely preferable outcome to the
sanest of soldiers how small craters had been punched into the
flowerbeds on the central reservations.
Ever so slowly, the suburbs
of Baghdad were being turned into battlefields.