Minute the Missiles Came,
With Devastating Shrieks
By Robert Fisk in Baghdad
Saddam's main presidential palace, a great rampart of a building 20
stories high, simply exploded in front of me a cauldron of fire,
a 100ft sheet of flame and a sound that had my ears singing for an hour
after. The entire, massively buttressed edifice shuddered under the
impact. Then four more cruise missiles came in.
It is the heaviest bombing
Baghdad has suffered in more than 20 years of war. All across the city
last night, massive explosions shook the ground. To my right, the Ministry
of Armaments Procurement a long colonnaded building looking much
like the façade of the Pentagon coughed fire as five missiles
crashed into the concrete.
Huge fireball rises above buildings during air strikes on Baghdad March
21, 2003 in this frame grab taken from Abu Dhabi television footage.
U.S. and British forces unleashed a massive air assault on Baghdad on
Friday as invasion forces advanced swiftly toward the city, where President
Saddam Hussein's supporters dug in for a last stand. (Adu Dhabi Television/Reuters)
In an operation officially intended to create "shock and awe'',
shock was hardly the word for it. The few Iraqis in the streets around
me no friends of Saddam I would suspect cursed under their
From high-rise buildings,
shops and homes came the thunder of crashing glass as the shock waves
swept across the Tigris river in both directions. Minute after minute
the missiles came in. Many Iraqis had watched as I had television
film of those ominous B-52 bombers taking off from Britain only six
hours earlier. Like me, they had noted the time, added three hours for
Iraqi time in front of London and guessed that, at around 9pm, the terror
would begin. The B-52s, almost certainly firing from outside Iraqi airspace,
were dead on time.
Police cars drove at speed
through the streets, their loudspeakers ordering pedestrians to take
shelter or hide under cover of tall buildings. Much good did it do.
Crouching next to a block of shops on the opposite side of the river,
I narrowly missed the shower of glass that came cascading down from
the upper windows as the shock waves slammed into them.
Along the streets a few Iraqis
could be seen staring from balconies, shards of broken glass around
them. Each time one of the great golden bubbles of fire burst across
the city, they ducked inside before the blast wave reached them. At
one point, as I stood beneath the trees on the corniche, a wave of cruise
missiles passed low overhead, the shriek of their passage almost as
devastating as the explosions that were to follow.
How, I ask myself, does one
describe this outside the language of a military report, the definition
of the color, the decibels of the explosions? When the cruise missiles
came in it sounded as if someone was ripping to pieces huge curtains
of silk in the sky and the blast waves became a kind of frightening
counterpoint to the flames.
There is something anarchic
about all human beings, about their reaction to violence. The Iraqis
around me stood and watched, as I did, at huge tongues of flame bursting
from the upper stories of Saddam's palace, reaching high into the sky.
Strangely, the electricity grid continued to operate and around us the
traffic lights continued to move between red and green. Billboards moved
in the breeze of the shock waves and floodlights continued to blaze
on public buildings. Above us we could see the massive curtains of smoke
beginning to move over Baghdad, white from the explosions, black from
the burning targets.
How could one resist it?
How could the Iraqis ever believe with their broken technology, their
debilitating 12 years of sanctions, that they could defeat the computers
of these missiles and of these aircraft? It was the same old story:
irresistible, unquestionable power.
Well yes, one could say,
could one attack a more appropriate regime? But that is not quite the
point. For the message of last night's raid was the same as that of
Thursday's raid, that of all the raids in the hours to come: that the
United States must be obeyed. That the EU, UN, Nato nothing
must stand in its way. Indeed can stand in its way.
No doubt this morning the
Iraqi Minister of Information will address us all again and insist that
Iraq will prevail. We shall see. But many Iraqis are now asking an obvious
question: how many days? Not because they want the Americans or the
British in Baghdad, though they may profoundly wish it. But because
they want this violence to end: which, when you think of it, is exactly
why these raids took place.
Reports were coming in last
night of civilians killed in the raids which, given the intensity
of the cruise missile attacks, is not surprising. Another target turned
out to be the vast Rashid military barracks, perhaps the largest in
But the symbolic center of
this raid was clearly intended to be Saddam's main palace, with its
villas, fountains, porticos and gardens. And, sure enough, the flames
licking across the façade of the palace last night looked very
much like a funeral pyre.
Published on Saturday,
March 22, 2003 by the lndependent/UK