Baghdad projects image of normalcy


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Hours after the United States opened war against Iraq with a surprise missile attack apparently aimed at the Iraqi leadership, the streets in this city of 4.5 million people were deserted.

Saddam Hussein went on national television shortly after the bombardment to denounce the attack and President Bush.

The Iraqi Information Ministry offered no details of the predawn attack in Baghdad and refused to take reporters to the scene.

Instead, the ministry arranged for several busloads of reporters to be taken to a grain storage silo, where the trade minister, Mohammed Mehdi Salah, was presented with a bouquet of flowers by an Australian woman representing a group of peace protesters.

The woman was among a number of protesters who have been assigned by the Iraqis to various industrial sites and other potential military targets around Baghdad to serve as human shields in an effort to deter American bombings.

Many peace protesters have remained in Baghdad, mainly drawn from Western countries, including the United States, Britain and Australia, all of which have troops among the coalition forces fighting Iraq.

On their way to and from the silo, reporters could see signs that the government had largely abandoned many of the power centers that were expected to be targets of heavy American air attacks.

Most ministry buildings appeared empty, as did the large fortified buildings used as offices by many senior officials. At compounds known to have been used as headquarters by Hussein's older son, Odai, and by Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, the fourth-ranking member of the regime, the only sign of activity was provided by groups of men, many of them middle-aged or barely out of their teens.

The men were on guard with Kalashnikov rifles while seated on plastic garden chairs or rickety bed frames carried into the open air.

The purpose of the visit to the silo, at Taji, about 10 miles north of Baghdad, appeared to be to press home the point that was made insistently throughout the 12 hours after the initial U.S. attack that the government continued to function as usual and the ritualized adulation of Hussein that has been an obsessive part of Iraqi life throughout his 23 years as ruler remained undiminished.

Workers at the silo praised Hussein in chants and, in English, vilified the American president: "Down, down with Bush!"

Despite the seemingly vestigial defenses for some of the country's most powerful men and the deserted streets through most of the city, there was no sign of any crumbling of the government's authority.

Information Ministry officials dealing with foreign reporters continued to insist on punctilious adherence to a host of minor rules that are part of every reporters life in Baghdad. One official insisted that any bending of the rules would harm his career, and possibly even his freedom, when the war with America was over.

The implication was that at least among these officials there is a steadfast clinging to the conviction voiced repeatedly in recent days by Hussein and other top leaders that he and his government would survive the American attacks and live to celebrate victory over the United States.

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