Saturday April 05, 2003

 


Robert Fisk: Reports of airport assault premature

04.04.2003 - 8.00am

SADDAM HUSSEIN INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT - So where are the Americans? I prowled the empty departure lounges, mooched through the abandoned customs department, chatted to the seven armed militia guards, met the airport director and stood beside the runways where two dust-covered Iraqi Airways passenger jets -- an old 727 and an even more elderly Antonov -- stood forlornly on the runway not far from an equally decrepit military helicopter.

And all I could hear was the distant whisper of high-flying jets and the chatter of the flocks of birds which have nested near the airport car park on this, the first day of real summer in Baghdad.

Only three hours earlier, the BBC had reported claims that forward units of an American mechanised infantry division were less than 16km west of Baghdad -- and that some US troops had taken up positions on the very edge of the international airport.

But I was 27km west of the city. And there were no Americans, no armour, not a soul around the runways of the airport whose namesake, in poster form, sat nonchalantly in the arrivals lounge in a business suit, cigar in hand. Even more astonishingly, there was no sign of the 12,000 Republican Guards whom the US division expected to fight.

Indeed, Saddam Hussein International Airport looked as if it was enduring an industrial strike (let us not conceive of such an event in Saddam's Iraq) rather than an imminent takeover by the world's only superpower.

Was it true, the Iraqi minister of information was asked at his daily 2pm press conference (11pm NZT) - a routine institution of usually deadly tedium - that the Americans were at the airport?

"Rubbish!" he shouted. "Lies! Go and look for yourself."

So we did.

And, alas for the Anglo-American spokesmen in Doha and the US officer quoted on the BBC, the Iraqi minister was right and the Americans were wrong. But it's a good idea to take these things, if not with a pinch of salt, then at least with the knowledge that there are always two reasons for every decision taken in this violent, ruthless land.

Sure, the Americans had been caught lying again - as they were about the "securing" of Nasiriyah more than a week ago - but was that the only reason journalists were permitted to visit Baghdad airport? We saw no Republican Guards - just as the Americans have themselves somehow failed to discover the 12,000 Republican Guards supposedly facing them.

Indeed, what I found most extraordinary was that there appeared to be absolutely no attempt to block the road into Baghdad from the airport.

Save for a few soldiers on the streets and a police squad car, you might have thought this a mildly warm holiday afternoon.

Was their some kind of trap about to be sprung? Were the Americans being lured into the gentle, palm-fringed highway into town because, unknown to all of us, there was in fact some real armour hidden away in the great fields on the western banks of the Tigris?

All day, I had asked myself about the supposed American assault-to-come on Baghdad.

Where were the panicking crowds? Where were the food queues? Where were the empty streets? True, the motorway to the airport was a spooky, lonely journey.

But the centre of Baghdad was livelier than for many days.

The city authorities have put more of their Chinese double-decker buses back on the streets - normal service, as they say, has been resumed - and the railway company claimed its trains were still leaving for northern Iraq.

At lunchtime, I dropped into the Furud Takeaway for my daily fix of chicken "shish-taouk", tomatoes and green beans.

It was packed with Shia families, the ladies in black chadors, the men largely bearded, chomping through giant "mezzes" of "hoummus" and "tabouleh" and lamb and rice.

The television was showing an Iranian channel, a musical in the Persian language. Iranian TV has two Arabic channels whose signal can be picked up without a satellite dish - and many Baghdadis trust their news service more than that of Kuwaiti or Saudi television.

Near the Rafidiyeh Bridge, in a canyon of traffic, I caught sight of a middle-aged man staring at the great monument to Saddam's "victory" in the 1980-88 war with Iran.

At the base of a column, iron, helmeted soldiers stood behind iron sandbags, firing an iron machine-gun at their Persian enemies, an iron soldier throwing an iron grenade in the same direction.

There is this monument to military victory in Baghdad, a monument to the "martyrs" of that victory - perhaps half a million of them - and a monument to the unknown soldier of that same war.

Ex-prisoners asked for a monument to their suffering - in eight years, there were 60,000 of them - but their request was officially turned down.

Was that to emphasise the humiliation of surrender? Is this a lesson for the young Iraqi soldiers of today whose combat troops I saw on the road south of Baghdad on Wednesday, jumping from their trucks in steel helmets and flak jackets? Each night, I can hear the drumbeat of explosions and cluster bombs west of the city.

Who is dying there? The Chief of Staff of the Republican Guards' Baghdad Division -- the same division whom the Americans are supposedly incinerating - announces that he has suffered only 17 dead and 35 wounded.

Every morning, the newspaper Qaddisiyeh carries a detailed battle report from the front lines - always supposing there is a front line - which includes unit numbers and brigades.

On Wednesday, for example, the newspaper informed its readers that the Americans failed to cut the Kut to Baghdad highway, that Iraqi forces destroyed 14 US tanks in the province of Diwaniyeh, that the 704th, 424th and 504th Brigades of the Iraqi army's 3rd Army Corps prevented a US thrust near Suq el-Shuqh.

And so on and so forth.

Whether this represents anything like the battles which the Iraqis believe they are fighting will await the inquiries of historians.

Certainly, no one here takes the total of tanks and planes destroyed too seriously, although the Iraqis inevitably popped up yesterday to "confirm" the American admission of an F-18 aircraft shot down over the country.

Thus another long day, peppered with the rumble of faraway detonations, closed at Baghdad airport last night, dusk falling over the grimy terminals with their painted exhortations of "Down, Down America" and the airport's director, Wafa Abdullah Jabbouri, announcing that "there is no-one at the airport, you can see it's completely safe, even the workers still turn up each day." No doubt they do.

And while there's a large complex of buildings blown to pieces by missiles a mile away and the airport radar system is out of action after an early raid by American or British jets, Mr. Jabbouri appeared to be correct.

Had the Americans found themselves miles away on the edge of the old RAF airbase at Habbaniyeh, one wondered, and confused it with the airport outside Baghdad? Had they sent a patrol up to the far side of the Saddam airport for a few minutes, just to say they'd been there? Back in 1941, a German patrol briefly captured the last tram-stop on the line west of Moscow, collecting the discarded passenger tickets as souvenirs - and then got no farther.

But few here believe the Americans cannot bash their way into Baghdad if they really want to. After all, Napoleon got to Moscow in the end.

I guess it's the same old question. The Russians could hold Stalingrad because they loved Russia as much as they feared Marshal Stalin.

Does that equation of patriotism and dictatorship apply to the Iraqis? Messers Bush and Blair must hope it does not.

- INDEPENDENT

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