Sense of 'deja vu' as telephone exchanges bombed a second time

 

Baghdad view: The US intended to preserve Iraq's infrastructure, but the difficulty of the invasion is leading to what might be called "target slippage", reports Lara Marlowe, from the Iraqi capital

A younger, almost clean-cut version of the Iraqi President holds a telephone receiver to his ear in the wall portrait in front of the al-Ma'amoun telecommunications centre in west Baghdad. Looking alert, Saddam Hussein wears a green waistcoat and open-neck white shirt. His pen is poised to take notes. The likeness was meant to glorify a symbol of progress - not a ruin the size of a city block.

The purpose-painted portrait is, like everything in Baghdad, coated in clay-red desert sand, but otherwise it was unscathed by the early morning cruise missile attack that gutted the four middle floors of the 10-storey telephone exchange early yesterday.

Three Baghdad telecommunications facilities were hit in one of the worst nights of bombing. The targets had a sense of déjà vu about them: all three were destroyed by the US in the 1991 Gulf War and rebuilt by the Iraqis, only to be bombed again.

Curiously, Iraqi authorities are far more keen to show foreign journalists destroyed buildings than damaged humans. In nine days of war, they have allowed us to visit dozens of bomb sites, but staged only one hospital visit. We have to rely on the Information Minister, Mr Mohamed Said al-Sahaf, for cold statistics: 33 civilians killed in Iraq during the 24 hours from Thursday to Friday, including seven killed in Baghdad. He said 150 others were wounded during the same period.

Knowing that crying children and mangled bodies were more likely to affect public opinion, the Serbs adopted the opposite strategy in 1999. It is hard to feel sorry for a building, especially one that is obviously of dual civilian and military use.

The Americans had intended to preserve Iraq's infrastructure, to keep reconstruction costs down. But the difficulty of the invasion is already leading to what might be called "target slippage". The Defence Minister, Gen Sultan Hashem Ahmed, predicted on Thursday night that Baghdad will be encircled within five to 10 days. Baghdadis fear that other "dual use" targets - power plants, pumping stations, bridges - could soon follow.

The Iraqis portray the telephone exchanges as civilian targets. "This served the people of this area, so they will suffer," the Telecommunications Minister, Mr Mortaza Said, declared in the wreckage of the al-Awiya building in east Baghdad.

After a sleepless night of almost continuous explosions, many thousands of Baghdad residents had no means of contacting friends and relatives to see if they were safe.

Less than a kilometre from my hotel, the al-Awiya exchange was bombed at 7 a.m. yesterday with a 4,500-pound "bunker buster" that rocked the eastern bank of the Tigris with the force of an earthquake. A chunk of a telephone switchboard dangled in mid-air, high up in the cavernous ruin. Somewhere in the void, I could hear the constant ringing of an alarm bell or telephone.

On the slip-road to the Sineg Bridge, another massive bomb missed its target by just a few metres: the al-Rashid telecommunications centre, which is also the capital's main post office. The impact cleaved up huge slabs of asphalt, but the high-rise building was almost intact.

As I watched men in green militia uniforms load dirty styrofoam boxes filled with circuit boards into a van, an official softly urged me to leave.

"This was a near miss," he said. "I expect the Americans will come back any moment. I'd get out of here now if I were you."

It's difficult to say which is stronger: fear of the next bombing raid, or Iraqis' fear of each other. Officially, of course, they are all unified "in the face of the criminal American aggression".

Unofficially, a man from south Baghdad told me he saw the bodies of three Baath Party officials - men he had known - shot dead in the street yesterday morning. A Sunni Muslim, he blamed Shiites loyal to Ayatollah Mohamed Bakr Hakim, an Iraqi Shiite opposition leader exiled in Tehran.

Twenty-four years ago, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini began exhorting Iraqi Shiites to rise up against Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime. In the meantime, Iran's defeat in the 1980-1988 first Gulf War left Khomeini's successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with a hankering for revenge. The "Great Satan" US and Saddam Hussein are his two arch enemies, and he must be delighted to see them fight each other.

In the hope of maintaining peace between Sunni and Shia, Baghdad repeatedly broadcast a fatwa by Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani in the holy city of Najaf, ordering all Shia to "stand with Iraq" against the US invasion.

With three of four Iraqi television stations now bombed off the air, such appeals have less chance of being heeded.

"It gets more dangerous here every day," said a barber in Baghdad's Karrada district, near the devastated al-Awiya phone exchange.

That was apparently the conclusion of the Beijing government, which yesterday ordered Chinese journalists to leave for Damascus. Twenty "human shields", who volunteered to risk their lives in protest at the US-led war, also decided that caution was the better part of valour and headed overland for the Jordanian capital, Amman.