AMID a blistering artillery barrage and aerial bombardment that made buildings shake and deafened the ears, I drove through the half-deserted streets of Baghdad yesterday searching for signs of American troops and tanks rolling into the beleaguered Iraqi capital.
From our side of Baghdad no American tanks were visible despite dramatic television footage showing US armour charging through the outskirts of the city towards the centre. US Central Command in Qatar claimed that tanks had “moved right up to the middle” of the city.
Colonel William Grimsley of the US 3rd Infantry Division described the principle behind what was dubbed Operation Thunder Run as: “Let me poke you in the eye because we can and you can’t do anything about it.”
My drive was an astonishing journey. It revealed both the growing preparations for Baghdad’s defence by Iraqi forces and the immense damage to key installations inflicted by coalition bombing.
At one point my car was trapped behind a civilian lorry heading towards the city centre, a brace of surface-to-air missiles concealed underneath a tarpaulin on the back. At another, I saw lines of Fedayeen Saddam paramilitaries — under the command of Uday, Saddam Hussein’s elder son — squatting down beside a row of shops at a strategic intersection.
One district between the city centre and the airport was bristling with armed men in and out of uniform.
At another big intersection, soldiers were positioned behind mortars and rocket launchers, hand grenades swinging from their belts, waiting for the Americans to emerge. They dug shallow trenches, unloaded ammunition and stood guard.
Near a southern flyover I counted 14 Iraqi tanks. A soldier who was asked where the nearest American forces were said with a shrug that they were “five, six or seven” kilometres further south.
I was already approaching the southern flanks of the city and Iraqi control seemed complete, despite the proximity of fighting. Only the burnt-out carcass of an Iraqi tank hit by an airstrike testified to the combat.
There was no doubt, however, that America and Britain’s 17-day war to topple Saddam had entered a new phase following the capture of Saddam Hussein international airport.
Satellite television pictures that could not be seen in Baghdad showed small groups of civilians waving as tanks rolled through the city’s streets. The Americans said 26 M1A1 Abrams tanks and 10 Bradley fighting vehicles had penetrated to within three miles of the centre.
A US colonel, David Perkins, said two heavily armoured units had cut Baghdad in half and claimed Iraqi defences had been wiped out in the process.
He later appeared to confirm that all the US tanks had left Baghdad. “We have sealed the city off,” he said. “We own the southern, northern and western approaches, so (Iraqi forces) cannot bring in new equipment.” He claimed about 1,000 Iraqis had been killed.
A number of Iraqi counterattacks amounted to suicide missions. In one, a fire engine was driven at an Abrams tank. It was obliterated.
One American soldier was killed and four others wounded in the raid. Another tank had to be abandoned in Baghdad because of mechanical failure.
“We had one tank that went under an overpass and was hit from the rear,” said Perkins.
“It caught fire, the tank crew stopped and they started putting the fire out.
“At the same time Iraqi infantrymen started firing on the tank. You had the tank crew trying to save the tank with portable fire extinguishers and at the same time you had the commander sitting on the top of the tank with a 9mm pistol shooting at the Iraqi infantry.”
With a bloody showdown looming, perhaps this coming week, in the streets and broad highways of Baghdad, evidence was also abundant that ordinary city life was crumbling after two nights of awful havoc and thunderous explosions as US and Iraqi troops battled for control of positions on the southern and eastern flanks. Most shops were padlocked against looting.
Baghdad is a city of 5m people, a fifth of the population of Iraq. Rather, it was. For since Thursday night tens of thousands have fled, streaming away from the advancing American troops and towards the province of Diala to the northeast.
The Iraqi authorities made no effort to stop the exodus and the queues of traffic stretched for miles.
It was a terrible scramble as the city became more and more stricken with fear. People packed buses, lorries, pick-ups, taxis and private cars with beds, tables, chairs, television sets, sacks of food and clothes and cooking pots. Some even left in horse-drawn carts.
Isolated from the outside world by coalition bombing that has cut the telephone exchanges, the people of Baghdad faced a demoralising third night of darkness without electricity or running water after a power station was hit. A headlong exodus continued all day yesterday.
Residents lucky enough still to have electricity were able to catch a glimpse of Saddam, who made another of his fleeting appearances on television last night, flanked by his two sons and his military commanders. The city was meanwhile shaken by explosions.
These are momentous times in Baghdad, some of the most momentous in its long and colourful history. It has been the destination of a host of invading armies — Arabs, Mongols, Ottoman Turks and the British who lost thousands of men trying to capture it in the first world war.
Foreign journalists trying hard to make sense of it all are caught in information crossfire between the Iraqi version of the war and what coalition headquarters in Qatar put out.
Somewhere out there amid this fog of lies and half-truths is the truth. American claims that their tanks had reached the centre of Baghdad were absurd. The Palestine hotel where we are quartered on the banks of the Tigris is bang in the heart of the city, through which yesterday came a hooting procession of police cars filled with supporters of Saddam, brandishing his portrait and shooting their Kalashnikovs into the air.
The American response to questions about why we saw no tanks in the city centre was to shrug it off by saying:
“In some parts of downtown London you can’t see what is going on in other parts of London.”
Officials from the Iraqi information ministry told us that American claims to have entered Baghdad were part of a campaign of psychological warfare. Last night a defiant Iraqi fighter arrived at the Palestine brandishing an American soldier’s uniform. He said the soldier had been handed over alive to security forces in Baghdad. The uniform bore the name Diaz and the serial number D9544.
For the Americans, the war was nonetheless on course. US officers said that the tank raid was carried out to show Iraqi leaders and the citizens of Baghdad that they could enter the capital at will.
By their own admission, US forces were still battling to dislodge Iraqis from the northern edge of the airport complex and from an extensive underground complex, and said that “hundreds” had been killed. Some of the dead, an American spokesman added, had bombs strapped to them, suggesting they had been preparing to carry out suicide attacks.
The loss of the airport, which the Americans said they can now use for helicopter supply missions, was a bad blow for Saddam’s regime, but the Iraqis continued to put on a confident display.
The minister of information Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf claimed the “mercenaries” and “desert animals”, as he has contemptuously described the Anglo-American force, had been led into a trap and were getting a drubbing.
He said the Republican Guard had taken “full control” of the airport after pushing the Americans “out of the whole area”. “We are pummelling them and pounding them hard with artillery,” he said.
Perhaps we were up against an inevitable tendency in war for governments faced with grim news from the battlefield to act as if everything was normal. In the inferno of Berlin in 1945, Hitler in his bunker claimed victory until the very end.
In Phnom Penh in 1975, as Khmer Rouge forces attacked the western suburbs, the government news agency ignored imminent defeat and carried a prominent story about the death of Josephine Baker, the singer.
If the toll in human lives were not so tragic we in Baghdad might easily have felt last week that we were part of a theatre of the absurd.
As recently as Thursday morning, dustmen were still sweeping streets of garbage. But by last night that had changed and even flight seemed dangerous.
After one terrifying night, Ali Karim, a 32-year-old shopkeeper, decided to flee. Gathering a few possessions he begged a ride from a neighbour and they set off for what they thought was safety.
They had driven only a few miles when their Datsun car rounded a corner to be confronted by three American tanks sitting by the road several hundred yards ahead.
They braked and turned back. They were too late. The lead tank opened fire, pulverising the car. Karim was hit in the chest and shoulder. When I caught up with him yesterday he was in a Baghdad hospital ward, jammed in with other innocent victims of the first two days of the battle for the city.