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Saturday, March 22

Baghdad braced for ground troops, more ‘shock and awe’

By Greg Barrett | GNS

The lights were on Saturday in Baghdad. Iraq’s government-run Internet was functioning. Local and international phone lines worked intermittently.

It was a far cry from the destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure during the initial days of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, but on this first morning following Friday’s American-made "shock and awe," Iraqi civilians rose warily, certain the worst was yet to come.

On Baghdad’s quiet sidewalks, Washington, D.C., peace activist Betty Scholten, 69, saw everyday Iraqi men carrying rifles. These same men who use their battered old cars as taxis and work the tearooms, bookrooms and delis of Baghdad plan to defend their ancient city - and their pride - against invading troops, she said in a telephone interview.

"People are going to fight," an Iraqi driver told Scholten. "There’s going to be a lot of bloodshed."

Forty extra hospital beds were neatly fitted with sheets this week and rolled into the pale-blue lobby of the Al-Mansur Children’s Hospital.

"I was taken aback at the sight, and then again by the mental recognition that this is a children’s hospital," Bettejo Passalaqua, 42, of Omak, Wash., said in a telephone interview. She is one of some 30 international peace activists risking their lives to remain in Baghdad.

Iraqi TV was predicting the arrival of U.S. ground troops within a day or two on the streets of Baghdad.

"I think the people in our group and in the city are at a loss to envision what it means," said Doug Johnson, 43, an activist from Louisville, Ky., who arrived in Baghdad in February. "I can’t imagine it here any more than I can imagine foreign troops marching through the streets of Louisville."

A good friend of Johnson’s is training Army troops in Kuwait.

"And I really wish he would just turn around and go home," Johnson said. "I can see how it would be easy to think the Iraqi people are different than us, that they are aggressive … that they are irrational, that they somehow maybe even hate Americans. But that’s just not true.’’

On Friday, Scholten, a retired teacher, flagged down what she thought was a cab. In Baghdad any vehicle can double as a taxi. People simply wave their hands at oncoming traffic.

But Scholten was surprised to see a mother and newborn slouched low in the back seat of the car when it pulled to the curb. The father had stopped for other reasons, but when he heard that Scholten needed a ride, the young Iraqi husband and wife insisted on ferrying her back to her hotel.

When she tried to pay them, they refused, until she insisted.

"I told them the money was for their baby," Scholten said. "It was their first child."

To Johnson, the conflict with Iraq feels like a civil war. The Iraqis look him in the eyes and return his smiles and offer their handshakes, even as fiery orange balls explode.

He was on the balcony of the hotel writing in his daily journal Friday when he heard the air raid sirens. The previous two nights there had been only a peppering of bombs, and this felt like it would be no different.

Then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s main palace was struck three times, and the night sky on the west side of the Tigris River exploded. Reverberations stretched to the east bank of the river and a large plate-glass window one floor below Johnson shattered.

He watched in awe at first, and then the deafening roar forced him indoors. On Saturday his ears were still stopped up.

A hotel employee who had been home during the attack tried Saturday to describe what it had been like at his house. He didn’t speak English so he pantomimed the breaking of window panes, said Iraq Peace Team founder Kathy Kelly.

Then he crouched on the floor and put his hands over his head to show how his children protected themselves from a ceiling fan that fell.

During the bombing, more than one dozen children of the hotel employees were at the hotel, huddled with their parents in the hallways, the basement shelter or in the small tearoom. Kelly and Johnson said they never saw any of them cry.

"The parents were very good with the children, very calm, very reassuring," Johnson said. "These people have lived through two wars and 12 years of (economic) sanctions. They are very strong people."

But the United Nations economic sanctions enforced on Saddam’s regime has badly hurt the middle class and forced most of Baghdad’s 4 million residents to rely on government rations. Johnson said the population is tired and poor.

As sunset approached Saturday, Johnson had moved indoors to await the next wave of bombs, and he pondered the question on everybody’s mind.

"Will they fight the American troops?" he said. "I just don’t know."

There was a long pause.

"I really hope not.’’