BAGHDAD, Iraq April 6 —
Saddam Hussein speaks of it repeatedly, at times even seeming to
yearn for it. Many Iraqis fear it so much they've fled the city.
Those in the trenches and behind the sandbags see it as the final
stand against an invader or a chance to gain martyrdom.
The battle for Baghdad is the defining confrontation of the
U.S.-led war to topple the Iraqi president.
The first ground fighting in the Iraqi capital came Saturday,
when a U.S. armored column wheeled through the city's southwest
sector in a brief incursion, clashing with fighters along the
But the street-to-street grind that the Iraqis have promised
their American foes has yet to start.
It's a nightmare scenario a potentially costly battle in which
anything from light arms, mortars to artillery, tanks and helicopter
gunships will be used in this city of 5 million people.
"It's the war between the forces of the faithful and the forces
of the infidels," said Nizar Faleh, a Baath Party fighter who spoke
Saturday as he rested with his comrades near a sandbagged position
at al-Harthiya district. "This is a crusade, a war against
By nightfall, Baghdad's streets were crawling with armed men of
all kinds army troops, policemen, militiamen, loyalists from
Saddam's Baath party and members of Saddam's Fedayeen, a militia led
by the Iraqi leader's eldest son Odai.
Tanks, armored personnel carriers and field artillery were
deployed, mostly in areas facing the city's western, southern and
"I am not afraid to die," said Thamer Mekki, a 16-year-old in
blue jeans and a T-shirt who says he learned how to shoot a gun at
"I am doing this for my country," said Mekki, next to his sentry
position in the upscale district of al-Mansour.
Also among the thousands of men ready to defend Baghdad are
soldiers of the elite Republican Guard, armed with Kalashnikov
assault rifles, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine
guns. They dug fresh trenches and fortified older ones on Saturday.
Soldiers took over houses close to the main highway near the
Trucks carrying water and fuel shuttled between positions,
replenishing supplies. The soldiers and militiamen looked relaxed on
their home turf and appeared to enjoy the goodwill of people who
remained in town.
Residents of nearby houses offered the fighters food and glasses
of sweet, black tea. Children played in the trenches and around the
sandbagged positions some of them allowed to take a close look at
the soldiers' weapons or try on their helmets.
Baghdad, like Damascus and Cairo, is one of the Arab world's
fabled cities, boasting the accrued monuments of ancient
civilizations, medieval empires and modern regimes. The significance
of the battle for the city is not lost on its defenders.
In his latest message to the nation, Saddam told his fighters
Saturday that Baghdad enjoyed divine protection.
"God will protect it as a symbol for virtue and faith and Jihad
(holy war) even if a heavier burden came to it," he said.
Faleh, the Baath party fighter, alluded to the Arab perception
that Washington has backed Israel in 2 1/2 years of violence which
have left a high death toll among Palestinians.
"Every time we deal a strike to America, we're avenging our
Palestinian martyrs," he said.
Another fighter, 29-year-old businessman Mustafa al-Samar'ai,
says the battle for Baghdad is one against an imperialist army
seeking to control the wealth of others.
"Anyone who leaves his country to be taken over by a colonial
power can also surrender his honor and anything else with it," he
|A public communication center
that was hit during an airstrike in Baghdad, on March 27,
2003, is seen from a bus during a press tour in this file
picture taken March 28, 2003. The nightly ritual of screaming
bombs and billowing smoke in Baghdad is followed by this
daybreak reality: buildings at ground zero still standing,
sometimes looking remarkably intact. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay,
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