Chaos and denial in Baghdad

Marines enter the capital for the second time in two days.

It was a lone Iraqi prize - an American M1 Abrams tank, burnt out and blackened, a ruined heap of metal at the side of the road.

The tank lay at the junction of the Hilla Road and the Doura Expressway, where US officials say it was ambushed when its troops probed Baghdad's defenses on Saturday. Unable to tow the disabled tank away, US forces destroyed it.

The Iraqi authorities took reporters to see the tank Sunday morning, to show they still controlled the outskirts of the city, and to suggest they had forced the Americans to flee. Cameras rolled as enthusiastic locals leapt on top of the hulk to sing songs to President Saddam Hussein.

The view of the war from inside Baghdad is one steeped in chaos, denial, and increasingly bizarre claims. Some residents are packing to leave as black-clad Fedayeen militia roam the streets. City hospitals are filling with wounded that administrators insist are civilian casualties. And Iraqi officials steadfastly say all is going according to plan.

While US troops fortified positions at the rechristened Baghdad International Airport, the minister of information asserted Sunday that the airport was in Iraqi hands and the enemy was on the run.

"Whenever we attack, they retreat," Mohammed Saeed Sahaf told foreign reporters Sunday. "When we pound them with missiles and heavy artillery, they retreat even deeper. But when we stopped pounding, they pushed to the airport for propaganda purposes."

Any apparent American gains, he said, were a cunning ploy by the Iraqis to lure the enemy into a trap. "Our armed forces, according to their tactics, are leaving the way open," he said, listing numerous tanks, armored personnel carriers and helicopters which he said the Iraqi forces had destroyed. He said 50 Americans had been killed, but he did not know where the bodies were.

Media reports say that two US soldiers were killed, and six were wounded this weekend. The US Central Command says about 2,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed during the same period.

Hidden uniforms

Since Friday, wounded soldiers have been arriving in Baghdad's hospitals. At the Al Yarmuk teaching hospital, to the south of the city, surgeons patch gunshot and shrapnel wounds from those injured in Thursday night's battle for the airport and Friday's air raids.

"I'm sorry I can't talk - I'm too busy," says one doctor, as he examines a chest X-ray. Omid Mehmet Mubarak, the minister of health, in military uniform, steps aside to let orderlies wheel past a stretcher bearing a wounded young man.

"These people who are here - civilians, women, children, elderly - all of them are victims of cluster bombs, which is a mass destruction weapon which is prohibited," the health minister says, touting the government line which refuses to acknowledge military casualties. When she sees reporters watching, a medical assistant quickly covers up a uniform she was carrying.

Mohammed Karim is lying on a nearby bed, nursing a wound in his left leg, which he had received south of the capital that morning.

"I was on the Mahmudia Road when they attacked. There was a heavy bombardment - artillery and from the air. I was driving my truck. There was heavy shelling. I jumped out of the truck and ran, and shrapnel hit me in the leg," he says. He claims to have been carrying foodstuffs when he came under fire, but his wife - sitting at his bed side, her head modestly covered in a scarf - quietly observes that he had been transporting ammunition.

Later in the day, Iraqi TV shows pictures of President Hussein on a walkabout in downtown Baghdad. Despite feverish speculation in Washington, few Iraqis doubt that he is still alive and still in charge so the pictures were as much for international as Iraqi consumption. A government employee, who refuses to give his name, says that he saw the president with his own eyes.

"I was driving along and my friend said, don't turn round, it's the President driving the car behind us." He won't reveal what kind of car, but says the President was driving himself.

Few Iraqis have seen the TV broadcast, because power was cut in much of the city and the TV signal is very weak as the transmitters have been hit repeatedly. Most rely on radio to hear military communiques and a series of messages from the president, read by the information minister, urging them to turn Baghdad into "a citadel of resistance".

On Saturday, while the minister was denying that the Americans were approaching, the US 3rd Mechanized Infantry Division probed Baghdad from the south. Only 200 yards from the Al Rashid Hotel, in central Baghdad, drivers were forced to turn back in the face of what sounded like incoming artillery.

Safer to stay?

Baghdad residents are in a quandary about whether to stay or leave. Thirty-five people of varying ages from seven families stood on Karrada Street in the central shopping district on Saturday afternoon discussing what to do. A taxi stuffed with clothes, paraffin lamps, bedding, bread, and eggs, with the TV on the top, was ready to go to the bus station. Meysun Nejib says she's mother to six girls ages six to 20.

"I don't want to leave but the kids are crying all the time," she says. "Last night the house was shaking from the bombs. They told us the road was closed so I don't know what to do."

She says that a cousin had arrived from the northern city of Mosul, sporting a fresh graze on his hand which he says he received when the bus he was travelling in was hit by a missile. The road north is open, he says, but concedes it's dangerous to travel.

Confusion mixes with denial as people weigh their options. Mohammed Ali, proprietor of Atlas Hotel and Restaurant, announces: "There won't be a battle in Baghdad," even as he surveys the workmen he had employed to brick up his windows and doors.

On Saturday night, President Saddam Hussein was seen meeting his sons, Qusay and Uday, as well his inner circle, an attempt to show that nothing had changed and the government was in control of the situation. But by Sunday afternoon, the streets were empty. And the ominous boom of artillery was resounding across the capital from the Doura suburb to the southeast.

Lindsey Hilsum is the diplomatic correspondent for Britain's Channel 4 News

Some Iraqis welcome US

NEAR BAGHDAD, IRAQ - Maj. Mark Coast is surrounded minutes after stopping in a dusty enclave 18 miles south of Baghdad. Iraqis swarm out of their homes as soon as his unit's two Humvees stop.

"Thank you, thank you," says one white-robed man, shaking his hand and kissing his cheek. "You are safe, you are free," says Major Coast, of the 3rd Civil Affairs Group, 1st US Marine Division.

While the battle of Baghdad is yet to come, the Marines' reception by the local population south of the Iraqi capital is another indication of how Iraqi civilians may respond to the end of Saddam Hussein's regime.

In this neighborhood, looting has begun, and the targets also indicate that at least some Iraqis are no longer afraid of Mr. Hussein's government.

Women and children scoured a former Republican Guard complex taking office furniture, blankets, and lights from buildings that, days before, were strictly off limits. A farm cooperative was slowly being dismantled by thieves who were making off not only with the produce but with wiring, tarps, and storage baskets.

An athletic club sponsored by Uday Hussein was stripped clean by young men hauling away everything in the building, including banks of theater chairs.

There is lingering doubt about the US commitment among some Iraqis who remember reprisals by the regime following the Gulf War in 1991. Thousands of people were reportedly killed in the aftermath of the uprising against Hussein that was encouraged by the administration of former President George Bush but lacked military backing.

"We are afraid you will leave and Saddam will be back," says an Iraqi in Numaniya to Lt. Col. Mike Van Nordheim. "We aren't leaving. We are here to remove the regime and help Iraq become a democracy," responds the marine.

Curious Iraqis watch as US marines begin to set up their camp for the night near Baghdad.

They crowd the perimeter of the camp trying to talk with the marines and shout out the few phrases of English they know. "How are you!" "Thank you very much!" "I love you!" As the sun slowly sank in the smoky sky, the marines' Iraqi interpreter tells them to go and enjoy the night in freedom.

- Andy Nelson

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