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31 March 2003

The Battle of Decisive Days

Lindsey Hilsum finds Iraqi rulers not at all destabilised, and saying that the Americans are welcome

By Lindsey Hilsum

The wind howls round Baghdad’s tall, concrete buildings, whipping the dust of the desert in a gritty spiral. Trenches of oil set alight around the city send up palls of thick, dark smoke which drift across the sky and hang heavy in the air. On the opposite bank of the River Tigris, the blackened skeleton of what used to be the Office of the Presidency has disappeared into a thick smog of sand and oil. Built as a copy of the great ziggurat of Ur, an emblem of Iraq’s ancient history, the building was hit in the first week of fighting by at least three cruise missiles.

Meanwhile, American ground forces appear surprised at their reception. “They say they are facing pockets of resistance,” said the deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, to journalists in Baghdad. “But the best way to resist is in pockets. Very dangerous pockets. They thought they would be welcomed with music and flowers, but they are being welcomed with bullets.”

Instead of confronting the Americans head-on with regular soldiers trying to defend a front line, the Iraqis started a guerrilla war on their own territory. Small groups of Ba’ath Party militia and armed tribesmen attacked American and British forces with rocket-propelled grenades and rifles. The strategy is unlikely to stop the invading troops from eventually seizing towns and cities, but it forces the Americans to call in air support, which will inevitably lead to more civilian casualties.

“Every Iraqi is a commander in his own position and after his own manner when he is cut off from communications and instructions,” said the president in a communique read on television. “If [the enemy column] spreads out in a dispersed formation ready for battle, move away from it and do not confront it as a whole . . . Target vehicles . . . which are far away from large concentrations of troops.”

Whereas the Gulf war was “The Mother of All Battles”, this conflict is labelled on Iraqi television as “The Battle of the Decisive Days” or “The Battle of Final Reckoning”. It’s the same concept as CNN’s “Showdown with Iraq” – the idea that this will decide the ultimate victor, Iraq or America.

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While the Americans characterise it as a war to dislodge President Saddam Hussein and liberate the Iraqi people, Iraq portrays it as a nationalist struggle to repel a colonial aggressor. “In these battles of your Decisive Days,” said Saddam Hussein in a televised address to the Iraqi people, “the enemy’s aggression is not limited to aerial bombardment by warplanes and missiles, as it used to be in previous aggressions. This time, the enemy has deployed its land forces to occupy your homeland.”

Iraqi television shows fighters in the trenches, singing loyal songs, the reporter in military uniform leading the chorus, waving a Kalashnikov in one hand and a microphone in the other.

The hero of the hour is the simple Iraqi peasant, defending the motherland. In one report, an elderly peasant called Ali Obeid Mengash, wearing a long grey robe and a traditional black-and-white keffiyeh, was feted for having shot down an American Apache helicopter with an old hunting rifle. Epic music played as the camera panned jerkily over the crashed machine, its Hellfire missiles still intact. The announcer scoffed: “The Americans told us the Apache was highly advanced, but the heroic fighter brought it down with a rifle.” It’s David and Goliath.

The government is determined to show that far from being destabilised, it is functioning smoothly. A series of senior government ministers have held press conferences: Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadan, Tariq Aziz and the ministers of defence, trade, health, electricity, the interior and oil all appeared. Each minister seemed to be well across his brief, giving figures for casualties and details from the battlefield. The Americans said they were bypassing southern towns to get to Baghdad quickly; the defence minister told us the invaders had had to swerve because of the beating they would get if they tried to enter towns on the way.

The vice-president said the Americans were welcome to the desert, but towns will be defended. The initial resistance at Um Qasr, Nasiriyah and Basra suggested that this is true, but everyone knows that the war will be won or lost in Baghdad.

The city is already under siege. A friend slips out to see his family in Karbala, 50 miles to the south, and returns to report that the Ba’ath Party headquarters and other major government buildings have been hit. Few others leave Baghdad. News filters in from the suburbs. The al-Daura oil refinery has been hit. We are taken by bus to see a middle-class, suburban house that has been turned to rubble. Republican Guards massed on the southern edge of the capital are being pounded from the air – we hear the thud of bombing in the distance.

In the mornings, people go out to shop or work, but most scurry back by nightfall. A rumour goes round that two American pilots have parachuted into the Tigris, so hundreds of people claw through the reeds, desperate to claim the five million dinar reward Saddam Hussein has offered any Iraqi who captures an enemy soldier.

Buses smeared with mud cruise past, carrying dozens of young thugs in red-chequered scarves, chanting and waving the victory sign. They could be Arab volunteers, newly arrived from Syria for the punch-up, or country boys drafted in to defend Baghdad. Occasionally, we hear gunfire in the street.

It’s like the week before the war started – the tension is in the waiting. We peer anxiously through the opaque gloom of the sandstorm, wondering when the skies will clear and the battle for Baghdad will begin.

The author is Channel 4’s diplomatic correspondent