AMMAN – In more ways than one, we’re back to the Middle Ages. In Medieval wars, the desert was an abandoned battlefield and the cities were fortified castles (like today’s Basra and Baghdad). Even if the 3rd Infantry Division and the 5th Corps secure the symbols of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Iraqi guerrilla war – or the Palestinization of Iraq – will not fade away, with the civilian population taken as hostage. This presents the resistance with a stark problem: how, and for how long, can you stop Abrams M1A1 tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles armed with only Kalashnikovs and small rocket launchers?
It was just an “armored raid” – according to the Pentagon. Under an incredibly thick haze, a mix of dark clouds from oilfield trenches, sandstorm after-effects and smoke from battles, 70 American tanks and 40 armored vehicles have ripped through the heart of western Baghdad, reaching the west bank of the Tigris. Smoke was everywhere, the sound of ground fire everywhere. On the ground, Iraqi-side, there was visibly no effective structure, no command and control.
The scenario fits the American battle plan: to slice Baghdad into small pockets and then take them one by one. The eastern banks of the Tigris are still firmly in the regime’s hands. But the marines could spring up from the southeast at any moment. On a clock, Baghdad is encircled from five o’clock to twelve. The non-encircled twelve-to-five accounts basically for the northeast – where Saddam City, the huge Shi’ite suburb, lies: the Americans still hope an uprising in Saddam City will be the coup de grace against Saddam’s regime.
At the crucial hours when the American task force was carrying its mission “to remove whatever vestiges of government are still left” – according to Central Command in Qatar – Mohamed Saeed al-Sahaf, the gutsy, flamboyant Iraqi information minister, member of the cabinet and privileged target of said mission strolled to the roof of the Palestine Hotel, near Tahir square, where many Western and Asian cameras are positioned, his guns blazing, to deliver in Arabic what may rank as the most startling monologue of the whole war.
While American tanks were parked roughly a kilometer away from the minister between the imposing memorial crossed swords of the national parade ground – where a giant statue of Saddam Hussein was duly bulldozed – Sahaf said that there were “no American columns in the city of Baghdad.” He said that the Americans were surrounded. He said that the nonexistent columns were “slaughtered.” “They are beginning to commit suicide at the walls of Baghdad.” He smiled as he was saying, “We fed them hell.” Over the sound of distant gunfire, he broke into a grin when he said, “Those invaders, their tombs will be here in Iraq.”
American soldiers, meanwhile, were saying that “today is the symbol of victory.” They said that they were in the al-Rashid hotel – where in the entrance lies a marble portrait of George Bush senior, so patrons can step on him on their way in or out. The marines said that they were in the information and foreign ministries – but, as was later discovered, had not taken over the buildings, still defended by the Republican Guards.
Both sides of the war, on both sides of the Tigris, will fatefully meet sooner or later. Iraqi resistance may be blocking the bridges over the Tigris – and American tanks already cannot cross two damaged bridges into southeast Baghdad. But how long can the resistance go? Echoes from Baghdad tell of a ghost town since Sunday. Iraqi exiles confirm the fears of the civilian population of house-to-house fighting. There are no phones, no water and no electricity. Families don’t seem to know what to do except to stay home.
This may finally be the endgame. American soldiers are raiding the heart of Baghdad. The British are in almost full control of Basra. Chemical Ali – the man who ordered the gassing of Kurds in Halabja – is allegedly dead. Mosul is being severely bombed. What are Saddam’s options in trying to prolong a military battle that the whole planet knows he has already lost?
Saddam the pedestrian, his stunning, unprecedented walkabout on Saturday in the streets of Baghdad may have been a smashing coup in the propaganda war – but this does not mean that the regime is in control. Saddam is calling his seemingly invisible troops to organize attacks any time, anywhere, to defend Baghdad. Anybody in any circumstances should join the closest military unit – not necessarily his own regiment. These are significant signs that there seems to be no coordination whatsoever.
But after his stroll on Saturday, Saddam will be back in a bunker for good, and one may be certain that he still expects to find a way out. His implacable indifference to civilian suffering is legendary. He is counting on more and more “collateral damage.” Humanitarian agencies are desperate – warning of an impending disaster in Baghdad.
Saddam may never be found. The fighting spirit of the roughly 500,000 Iraqis who form the elite of the regime and depend on its survival remains. Saddam may opt to deliver audio rallying cries, reminiscent of calls by Osama bin Laden, from the Iraqi ether. He can try to manipulate world public opinion against Iraqi civilian casualties. He is likely thinking that the Americans can raid Baghdad at will. He knows that his victory would be not to capitulate. And he hopes that as far as Arab popular opinion – and most of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims – is concerned, he has already won.