Suzanne Goldenberg in Baghdad
Tuesday March 25, 2003
By the time the camera switched on to the olive green fatigues and black beret favoured by Saddam Hussein in moments of crisis, the Iraqi leader had achieved a milestone. Day five of America's war on Iraq, and he was still alive, and still in command.
He sensed it, and the Iraqi people did so too. An invasion once seen as a walkover for US and British forces showed no sign of a speedy ending, with the incoming troops meeting unexpected resistance, and suffering unexpectedly high casualties.
By the time the Iraqi president was intoning the Koranic verses that are a ritualistic opener for every speech, the fighting had already outlasted the ground phase of the 1991 war between America and Iraq, following the invasion of Kuwait.
"We are going to inflict on them the heaviest of casualties. Yes, the enemy has been trapped on our sacred soil of Iraq which the people are defending," he said. "I want to make the enemy tired and fatigued to the extent that the enemy won't be able to continue to fight."
The ground phase of the 1991 conflict lasted just four days - although it was presaged by an aerial bombardment which dragged on for more than 40, and a diplomatic stand-off which went on for more than five months. The ceasefire called by the elder President Bush on February 27, 1991 found the Iraqi army decimated and in flight.
This time, Iraq's leader promised, it would be different: "We are going to make it long and heavy for them, and the enemy will go into the abyss." Iraq had suffered a sleepless night of bombardment with American jets and warplanes fanning out beyond Baghdad to strike at troop concentrations and military sites at Babylon, Qaddisiya, and Kerbala in the west, Mosul in the north, and the central governorate of Salahaddin.
Babylon took the heaviest casualties, according to the information minister, Mohammed Sayeed Sahaf, suffering 30 dead and 63 wounded. But it was a hard night in Baghdad as well, where Iraqi officials said 194 were hurt in the most concussive bombing since Friday night.
Overhead, the skies were an ominous black from the pits of burning crude oil encircling the city. The oil pits were set alight by Iraqi forces on Saturday, in a replay of their destruction of Kuwait's oilfields during the last war. The temperature dropped several degrees, bringing in an unseasonable chill.
But many Iraqis appeared to have rallied yesterday, especially the regular army, and the tribal chieftains and irregulars who have been enlisted to the fight. In the minds of many, Umm Qasr, the tiny southern port where small groups of soldiers have held out against the US and British for days, was about to go down in Arab history as a by-word for valour.
"This is good," insisted Amer Abid Mohsin, smiling up at the black sky. "This is our shield so that the planes won't see us."
He was even happier at his leader's speech. "Beautiful. We are very happy with it. It has boosted our morale."
For many Iraqis the US and British difficulties at Umm Qasr were reminiscent of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Although that conflict did not end in a victory, early Arab advances at least served to wipe out the stain of humiliation from their rapid defeat in 1967.
Other Iraqis were cheered by the sheer sight of Saddam Hussein, who appeared far calmer and more collected than when he spoke on the opening day of the war last week. Then he appeared less than three hours after the first bombs landed on Baghdad, looking drained, and aged by a pair of thick spectacles. He read from a rambling, handwritten text scribbled on a stenographer's pad.
By yesterday, it was clear that Pentagon suggestions that he had suffered death or serious injury in the opening sortie of the war were premature. He had also maintained his grip.
"How does a leader who has lost control of the country deliver such an organised and effective address?" said Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi vice-president, who himself has been reported killed on at least two occasions since the war got under way. "Saddam Hussein is in full control of the country. He is in full control of the armed forces, and of all Iraqi resources."
Mr Aziz added: "He is in full control. All of us are in full control."
Yesterday's speech was impressively crafted, taking care to praise by name battalions of the regular army engaged in the fighting in Umm Qasr and elsewhere - a conscript force that the Pentagon had thought would turn tail at the first sight of American soldiers.
It was a message Mustafa al-Kadi had been longing to hear. By day a manager at one of the few restaurants still operating in Baghdad, at night he is one of the men standing guard at the small sandbagged posts that dot the city. Yesterday, he wore the trousers of his olive green uniform to work, with civilian clothes on top.
"I was very comforted. I was very relaxed," he said. "When he named the battalions it gave people a sense of security that these people are actually there on the ground defending the country."
The significance of the resistance was driven home by Mr Aziz, who said the fighting in Umm Qasr was entirely the product of the regular army, and not the crack Republican Guard. Mr Aziz also claimed that Saddam Hussein had taken personal charge of the situation in Umm Qasr, dispatching an army regiment there on the eve of the attack.
Although the Iraqi leader's talk of an overwhelming victory was entirely predictable, he gained in credibility by warning that the days ahead would be tough. "I would like to tell the people of Baghdad, the people of Mosul and the people of Muthana that wherever your enemy is defeated before you the enemy will increase its bombardments. Therefore you have to be patient."
Not all Iraqis were taken in by the speech, or by the promises of victory. "Perhaps I have got a western mentality. I think he was speaking about victory in a premature period, but I was told by other people that it was important for the morale of the army," said Wamidh Namidhi, a professor of political science at Baghdad University.
"It is true that the allied forces are facing unexpected difficulties, that the resistance is perhaps stubborn and stiff and beyond their imagination. But on the other hand, I think it is quite difficult for a superpower to come short of achieving its ends."
However, he had taken note of the battle for Umm Qasr, and the example it could set for the rest of the Iraqi army as the US and British forces push their way north to Baghdad.
"It is a surprise what is happening, it is something quite extraordinary," he said. "Usually in the Arab wars when the armies bypass the areas of fighting then the defending soldiers see no point in continuing the defence. To see people fighting while the Anglo-American troops have gone beyond them, it becomes a matter of honour, which raises the morale very much."