The world saw two realities in Baghdad last week. Saddam Hussein televised his on Friday, as Iraqi TV showed him rising from the underground to take a walkabout in two Baghdad neighborhoods. He seemed awkward but animated, surrounded by adoring citizens, even kissing a baby. As with every Saddam sighting, this one--plus a videotaped speech broadcast earlier that day in which he urged citizens to rise up against the Americans--triggered endless speculation about body doubles and other cinematic tricks. But intelligence analysts in the U.S. and elsewhere mostly concurred that this was truly Saddam. For supporters at home and abroad, his steely words and smiling visage seemed an attempt, however desperate, to convey this message: All is well. We will prevail.
A day later, the Americans decided to communicate a message of their own. Shortly after sunrise, more than 50 U.S. Army vehicles, led by M-1 tanks and Bradleys, suddenly powered into the center of Baghdad. Cruising at 25 m.p.h., the patrol shredded the enemy--killing perhaps more than 1,000 Iraqis--who dared take it on. Timid Iraqis waved cautiously from side streets, only to watch the invading forces rumble back out of the city. This was a mission not to take territory or wipe out an army but to make a point: Our tanks can penetrate your defenses at will, in broad daylight. "We drove through downtown Baghdad today," says a senior U.S. military official, "to show that we could."
Winning control of Baghdad may well turn out to be the bloodiest part of Gulf War II. But as the end game starts playing out, the fiercest fighting is being waged over some of the subtler aspects of war: symbols, perceptions, world opinion.
For the U.S., last week's race toward Baghdad silenced criticism that the military effort was bogging down. The 3rd Infantry Division and 1st Marine Expeditionary Force moved the big guns north, knocking off with relative ease what resistance they encountered. The body counts along the way were dramatically lopsided. In a battle for a bridge across the Euphrates, Lieut. Cclonel Rock Marcone of the 3rd Battalion 69th Armor Regiment said his men had killed 800 of the Republican Guard Medina Division; not a single American died. The U.S. notched tangible victories--roads secured, armies routed. But no less important were the symbolic gains. U.S. warplanes attacked the home of Ali Hassan al-Majid, Saddam's cousin and a member of his inner circle, widely known as Chemical Ali because of allegations that he ordered the gassing that killed some 5,000 Kurds in 1988. No battle was complete, it seemed, until American forces had torn down a Saddam poster or toppled a statue of his likeness. When Saddam International Airport, an emblem of the regime's ambitions 10 miles from the capital, fell to the 3rd Infantry's front line, the Americans promptly renamed it Baghdad International Airport. As the Americans rushed toward Baghdad, the Iraqi dictator was already being squeezed, his circle of supporters shrinking.