WASHINGTON - It takes 13 digits to dial into a war zone.
Even in the midst of U.S.-led air attacks on Baghdad, phone calls into the Iraqi capital are still possible, allowing Iraqi-Americans to experience the war in real time, through the frightened voices of loved ones and the echoes of falling bombs.
When a call connects, it can offer both hope and heartbreak.
"At first there's relief - we did not have any bad news as far as loss of life," said Haider Thamir, 42, a Cockeysville insurance broker who left Baghdad more than a decade ago. But when a call to an aunt in Baghdad cut off in mid-sentence this week, Thamir's wife burst into sobs over the dead line. She had wanted to say good-bye.
"We always say our good-byes as if it's the last time," Thamir said.
Getting through to Baghdad requires patience and luck, especially as U.S. forces continue to pound the city's telecommunications hubs. Saddam Hussein's regime reportedly lost landline phone service earlier this week, while bombing also wiped out service in neighborhoods close to Iraqi government buildings.
Phone blackouts are random: Airstrikes reduced a phone center in central Baghdad yesterday to rubble, according to the Associated Press. But another bomb missed its target: the 10-story Al-Rasheed telecommunications exchange was reportedly still standing yesterday, an undetonated missile lodged in the ground next to it.
On television, Baghdad seems like a city without people, seemingly empty buildings captured in the greenish night-vision lens from a fixed camera angle. But over the phone, the reality of war comes blasting into the comfort of American life.
"Many times I can hear the bombing," said Raad Albermani, 51, a builder in Fairfax, Va., who prays and reads the Quran after each call. "If I hear it so loud, I can't imagine what they hear in Baghdad - they don't even have glass in the windows."
Albermani, who left Iraq 25 years ago to study in the United States, says his family keeps him on the phone as long as possible; the connection consoles them.
Over a scratchy line, his sisters tell him that they hide their 80-year-old mother under a sink in the powder room when the air raids start. His mother tells him that if the sprawling 10-bedroom family home is demolished and she is killed in a missile strike, she wants him to come to Baghdad and hunt for her will in the rubble.
"They don't know what's going to happen to them today, tomorrow, five minutes from now," said Albermani, who last reached his relatives Tuesday and spoke to them for more than an hour, a call he estimates will cost him $100. "They don't know if this dictator is going to explode the entire city, or if they're going to explode from the bombs the airplanes drop. That's the confusion they're in."
Amid the wartime chaos, some Iraqi exiles feel they can speak their minds over phone lines that have long been monitored by Hussein's spies and police. Some exiles believe the besieged regime is losing its grip over phone-line chatter.
"Now I keep repeating, 'This dictator has got to go!'" said Albermani, who said that before the war, when he was arguing with his mother, a man's voice broke in and chided him for showing her disrespect. "It's not like that now. No one comes on the line. It doesn't seem like there's anyone watching the phone."
Still, some Iraqi-Americans still rely on a kind of code-talking.
"My family tells me, 'The big wedding is coming soon,'" said Aziz Al-Taee, who chairs the American-Iraqi Council, a national nonprofit for Iraqi exiles, and regularly calls his mother and sister in Baghdad. "We don't have anybody getting married, so what they mean is the liberation or something good is about to happen."
Over the phone it is not just who does talk, but who doesn't, that matters. Al-Taee last spoke to his mother, his sister and one of his nieces, but his brother and brother-in-law and the other male members of his family never picked up.
"They tell me the men are sleeping but I don't think that's the reason - I worry they've been taken by Saddam's military group, or used as human shields," said Al-Taee, 39, who left Iraq 20 years ago and owns electronics stores in Philadelphia. "The last three times I've called, no male members of my family have come to the phone."
On rare occasions, calls make it into the United States from Iraq. As the war wears on, many here say they try to connect with Iraq but hear only rapid busy signals.
When the calls go through, the Iraqis can sound almost normal - perhaps to quell their relatives' fears, perhaps because they're just used to living with war.
"I kept asking, 'How are you?' and my aunt kept changing the subject," said Sara Hussin of a call to Baghdad several days ago. The 22-year-old, who left Iraq as an infant and now works in a law office in Columbia, learned little over the phone. "My aunt just kept saying, 'We're fine; don't worry about us.' It was heartbreaking."
And, some are learning, mothers will always be mothers, even in a war zone. Dr. Khalid Altalib, 46, a kidney specialist, said his mother asked him in a call from Baghdad this week if there could be Arab-bashing in his Baltimore neighborhood.
"My mother's concerned about a backlash," said Altalib. "She worries about us. She doesn't worry about herself. But that's my mother."