April 04, 2003

Baghdad From the Palestine Hotel

Baghdad From the Palestine Hotel

John Burns puts it all in perspective.

On why Baghdadis have been fleeing their city in recent hours:

"The fear driving the exodus, by car, bus and truck, was of street-to-street fighting, revenge killings, a last-minute paroxysm of violence by the enforcers of the terror that has bludgeoned Iraq for three decades. For many Iraqis, this has been the nightmare all along, the least calculable part of the "price" they tell Westerners they have known would come with any American invasion to topple Mr. Hussein.

The implication in these whispered conversations has been that there has been a price, in limited casualties, that many, perhaps even most, Iraqis would be prepared to pay for their freedom, but that equally there was a price that would be too high.

With the battle for Baghdad about to be joined, that price will now be set, and with it, an outsider can imagine, the estimate many Iraqis will ultimately make of the war. But many people in Baghdad seem to have made their judgment about the air campaign already.

After the first few days, life in the city's streets gradually began reviving as confidence grew that there was not going to be widespread carnage, with American bombs and missiles striking wildly at civilians. Today, as for many days past, city-center gathering spots like Liberation Square, site of the lamppost hangings of nine Iraqi Jews condemned for spying in 1969, were busy with fruit and vegetable sellers, and hawkers doing brisk trade in the water canisters and buckets, duct tape and canned food, sacks of flour and candles, that have been the biggest sellers in recent weeks."

And on the civilian toll born of U.S. precision weaponry:

"That American bombs and missiles have gone astray is beyond challenge. Pentagon officials acknowledged before the war that even with the advances in satellite-guided targeting systems since the Persian Gulf war in 1991, no technology was foolproof, and mistakes would be made. How many there have been in this war will be clearer when the fighting ends, but the impression gained from living the war in the center of Baghdad has been that many of the strikes that have been visible - either from the grandstand view afforded by the Palestine Hotel's balconies, or from the guided bus tours of bomb sites around the city organized by Iraqi Information Ministry officials - have been astonishingly accurate.

On visits to neighborhoods around the city, reporters have seen homes, workshops and sidewalks where airstrikes have killed dozens of civilians and wounded many more. In some cases, the huge size of the craters, the proximity to military installations and witnesses' accounts have lent credibility to the Iraqi claims that the strikes were responsible.

In others, including the marketplace bombing that Iraq said killed 62 people in the Shula district of western Baghdad on Friday, there have been more questions than answers. Often, as in Shula, officials have delayed taking reporters to the site for hours, and have met with evasions the inquiries about the unusually small crater at the marketplace, and the fact that most victims appeared to have died from shrapnel wounds and not from the kind of blast associated with high-energy bombs and missiles."

This, from the acknowledged dean of war correspondents who won the Pulitzer for his coverage in Sarajevo where Bosnian Muslims were occasionally accused of shelling their own civilians in a bid for international sympathy so that the Western cavalry would rush in. Burns wouldn't write this lightly.

A final, telling, snippet:

"Over a few days in the last week, at least six inner-city telephone exchanges were destroyed, apparently to disrupt the Iraqi leadership's ability to conduct the war from the safety of underground bunkers and other hideouts. In almost every case, the missiles or bombs used appeared to have struck bulls-eyes in the roofs, plunging downward into the buildings' hearts before exploding with a force that left nothing but dangling wires, shattered concrete and twisted steel. At two exchanges, hours later, a lone beeper continued to wail in the wreckage, like a bell tolling for the departed."

Posted by Gregory at April 4, 2003 09:27 AM
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