At dawn, after the first blasts, silence and fear grip Baghdad


BAGHDAD, Iraq - At first light this morning, about 45 minutes after the first explosions in Baghdad, the city fell silent, save for the rush-hour sounds of cars racing over the highway. Instead of heading into town, however, they were leaving to escape the U.S. attack.

The silence followed the exploding bombs, the crackle of anti-aircraft fire and what sounded like machine-gun fire, mingled with a muezzin's call from one of the city's many mosques.

Apparently fashioned to mark the bombing, the call consisted of a plaintive 10 minutes of "Allahu Akbar" ("God is great") over and over.

Only one question

The waiting was over, hours after President Bush's 48-hour ultimatum to Saddam Hussein elapsed. As time was running out yesterday, the only question that waiters, masons, vegetable sellers, physicians, government clerks and other anxious Iraqis put to any foreigner was: "America, what time? Bush, what time?"

After more than 20 years of living under Hussein, Iraqis in every walk of life, at every age, at every level of competence in English and in every corner of this capital were transfixed by the question of when the clock would run down for Hussein and for the totalitarian government he has built here on a model he took from Josef Stalin.

As night fell yesterday, desperate appeals were heard for information that would help people decide when to leave their jobs, when to go to their basements, when to embrace their families and when to pray.

As war neared, the extraordinary friendliness with which Iraqis have greeted visitors, particularly from the United States and Britain, was offset by isolated incidents confirming that for some people here, the United States is the Great Satan, as Hussein called it during the first Persian Gulf war.

At a traffic light, a man in uniform, spotting Westerners waiting in a vehicle beside him, pulled a Kalashnikov rifle from the seat beside him and snapped a loaded magazine into its breech before roaring away. Here and there, other foreigners reported being spat at.

In several neighborhoods with potential military targets, Iraqis reported that pits had been dug and filled with heavy-grade oil to be set afire and cast a pall of smoke to slow attacks from the air and ground, and to choke U.S. troops.

In some areas of the city that are home to senior officials or the site of strategic buildings, Iraqis said, sandbagged bunkers had been dug every 100 yards or so, some holding anti-aircraft guns, the bigger ones with ground-to-air missiles.

Other actions reflected personal concerns. Hospitals reported that they had cleared their wards of all but emergency and chronic cases to make way for casualties. Expectant mothers were scheduled for Cesarean births to save time.

Lines at gasoline stations stretched around the block. Residents everywhere were in a last-minute rush to buy provisions, but many found that with most neighborhood shops closed, they had waited too long to buy more canned food, bottled water, candles, flashlights, car batteries and plastic containers.

For much of the day, the impression was of a government in a state of collapse, at least in its civilian ministries. At the Information Ministry, government minders assigned to reporters days ago in a toughening-up measure that brought in hard-faced men from the intelligence services were suddenly gone.

Many ministries were emptied of computers, filing cabinets and anything else that could constitute a revealing record of aspects of Hussein's rule that powerful people might not want falling into American hands.

A deep-rooted fear of being obliterated in an Armageddon deployed by the world's greatest military power was palpable.

Memories of 1991

People here are among the world's leading experts on the capabilities of U.S. "smart" weapons from their experiences in the 38-day air campaign that accompanied the war to oust Iraq from Kuwait in 1991 and from four days of similar attacks in 1998. But they also know that the most sophisticated weapons and the best-trained pilots can make mistakes.

By some estimates, perhaps 3,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in errant bombing strikes in 1991, a loss that is still felt deeply in Iraq.

But many who approached with questions about the timing of the attacks made it plain that their apprehension was mixed with at least an equal measure of anticipation.

One man lingering in the dark outside the Information Ministry, watching high-ranking intelligence officials talking on the sidewalk nearby, puffed nervously on his cigarette and asked a Western reporter whether the attack would start during the night, on or near Bush's deadline.

Told that it might start hours or even days later, the man shook his head and groaned. "Too much time, too much time," he said.

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