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Iraq Journals

Glimpses of life in a war-torn country by GNS national security correspondent John Yaukey and photo director Jeff Franko.


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Monday, April 7

Inside the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission

By John Bebow | The Detroit News

Updated 7:15 p.m., April 7

BAGHDAD, Iraq - War thundered just two miles away. But inside the 150-foot-high earthen walls of the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission compound Monday afternoon, songbirds chirped and flew through beds of roses in full bloom.

Here, a handful of Marines on patrol got their first glimpse of Iraq's wealth after weeks of rolling through mile after mile of poverty.

Wrought-iron street lamps lined the path to an office building surrounded by fountains. Inside, marble floors and a mahogany staircase led to lounges covered in thick carpets, decorated with upholstered couches and a stuffed hawk.

U.S. intelligence agents appeared to have quickly rifled the offices while leaving paintings and vases intact. In one office, a fish tank, still filled with water, sat on the floor. Books with titles such as "Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy for Scientific and Economic Development" lined shelves.

It wasn't immediately clear what U.S. agents found in the Atomic Energy Commission sweep, but it was part of a concerted effort Monday to find the clear proof of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

In another location nearby, U.S. Army Special Forces said they are testing about 20 mobile rocket launchers to see if they contained poisonous chemicals such as mustard gas and sarin.

If it turns out that mustard gas or sarin are in those rockets, "it doesn't get much worse than that," said Brig. Gen. John Kelly, assistant commander of the 1st Marine Division, shortly after being briefed on the Army discovery. "That's the smoking gun."

Citizens help themselves

As Army and Marine divisions stormed vast sections of the Iraqi capital, many Iraqi citizens seemed awe-struck by sudden good fortune. A mile from the Atomic Energy Commission offices, Iraqis rolled looted treasures past open sewers and back into their dirty brick settlements on the southeast edge of Baghdad.

They flowed out of the wide grounds of the General Automotive and Machinery Trading Co., riding new farm combines and dozens of shiny white Bobcat backhoes. One Bobcat towed a Toyota Land Cruiser emblazoned with Iraqi government logos.

Other Iraqis pushed new electric generators by hand, or pulled them with donkeys. At an oil refinery, trailers sat abandoned after locals drove the trucks away. Women and children combed the remains of Iraqi Army trenches for food, clothes and boots.

``I think they deserve it," said Marine Lance Cpl. Brad Mitchell, 21, from Baymont, W.Va., as he watched the looters parade along a major north-south road. "You can tell it's the most fun they've ever had. I'm glad for them."

The looters passed the remains of paintings and statues of Saddam near many intersections.

Two-hour battle

In the lawless afternoon, as smoke billowed over Baghdad, it looked like the final hour of Saddam's regime.

"The Republican Guard is just a street bully," said Marine Col. Mike Marletto, who directed two days of intense artillery fire into Baghdad on remaining Iraqi armor units picked up by radar. "They can take the local's lunch money, but they aren't going to take anything from us."

While the U.S. Army executed a dramatic capture of the Iraqi presidential palace and Ministry of Information in downtown Baghdad in the early morning hours, Marines fought across two bridges leading into the eastern half of the city.

Iraqi fighters put up a two-hour battle but failed in efforts to blow up the bridges over the 200-foot-wide Diyala River.

About 10,000 Marines in three regiments of tanks and troop carriers were rolling over the bridges by midafternoon. Thousands more Marines sat waiting in long lines of vehicles for their chance to cross the bridges.

"They're pumped up," said Capt. Ruben Martinez, logistics officer for 1st Tank Battalion. "Most of the Iraqis stay long enough to fire a few rounds or a rocket or two just to say they fought and then they cut and run."

Hunting Fedayeen headquarters

Marines were on the hunt for the Baghdad headquarters of Fedayeen fighters who have put up some of the strongest fight of all Iraqi troops throughout the war. Marine intelligence suggested that 2,000 to 4,000 Fedayeen were waiting for U.S. troops to arrive in Baghdad neighborhoods.

Unlike the fleeing Republican Guard soldiers, Fedayeen guerrillas were eager to fight to the death Monday. Gen. Kelly told of one Syrian-born fighter who tried to refuse Marine medical treatment despite losing a leg in a battle near the Diyala River bridges.

"This is a big party for them," Kelly said, adding he hoped as many Middle East jihad fighters as possible join the battle. "Maybe we want them all to flow in and we can kill them all. That way they can't get a bus ticket to Israel, New York City, or anywhere else."

The guest of honor, however, wasn't yet at the party.

Saddam's whereabouts remained a mystery, Kelly said Monday afternoon.

"Is he in Baghdad? Yes. Is he in Tikrit? Yes. Has he fled to Syria? Yes," Kelly said, summarizing a fresh conversation with Marine intelligence officers. "I hope he can't get out. These young (Marines), and the Iraqi citizens have earned the closure."