Saturday, March 22, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Spring day turns into night of fire


BAGHDAD, Iraq — In 10 devastating minutes, precision-guided bombs ripped into the symbolic heart of Saddam Hussein's regime last night and left much of one of his largest palace complexes ablaze.

It was the start of a night of massive bombing and missile attacks on Baghdad, distinctly different from two previous, much smaller bombardments.

Although the magnitude of the attack was a surprise, it was not unexpected. All afternoon the British Broadcasting Corp.'s World Service and other foreign radio stations had said that eight B-52 bombers laden with precision-guided bombs had taken off from a military airfield in England and were making their way toward Iraq.

People calculated how long it would take for the planes to reach Baghdad. Some raced around town, looking for household supplies. Others had lunch on the beautifully fresh spring afternoon.

By 8 p.m., the streets were largely empty. Little presaged the bombardment other than anxiety. There was no air-raid siren.

But almost on the stroke of 9 p.m., Iraqi radar must have picked up the silent B-52s approaching, and the air-defense unit of the army unleashed its optimistic and unguided volleys of pink, yellow and white rounds into the sky above the capital.

Then the bombs from England came to Baghdad. And their impact was fierce.

No building suffered more than a structure that has loomed over Baghdad for years inside what is perhaps the largest of all of Saddam's presidential compounds. The building looked like an Eastern European communist-era interpretation of an Aztec temple, an unappealing combination of sandstone and glass, surrounded by trees and other buildings that are invisible on most maps of Baghdad.

In seconds, the building was ablaze. Huge flames snaked up from its lower levels, and smaller fires burned brightly from the upper windows. It looked like the biggest funeral pyre ever built, marking the cremation of a regime whose end appears imminent.

That was just the start of the citywide assault. In the distance, on the western and southern outskirts of Baghdad, more bombs landed, sending up white flashes. Seconds later, less powerful blasts spread across the city.

One ambulance braved the night at 9:25 p.m. but it headed northeast, away from the central blasts.

The last bomb of this phase landed about three minutes later, apparently near an elaborate palace complex on the eastern side of the river. The palace was built and owned by Saddam's oldest son, Udai.

For most of the next hour, the sky above Baghdad remained quiet. Occasionally Iraqi gunners streaked the sky with anti-aircraft fire, but nothing came from the other direction.

That changed at 10:30 p.m.

The sound came from the northeast. It was unmistakably a Tomahawk Cruise missile, ripping through the darkness at enormous speed. It seemed to be passing horizontally next to the balconies on the higher floors of the Palestine Hotel, where many of the foreign media stay.

All night, the lights from the spectacularly bold Sajida presidential palace, named after Saddam's first wife, had lit up the building. It is the newest of Saddam's homes and, unlike many, is clearly visible from nearby roads. There is nothing secretive about this palace, only architectural braggadocio, epitomizing a man who has always dreamed of being an Arab emperor. The missile turned out the lights in the Sajida palace. A fireball erupted. But it was impossible to tell from a distance whether the palace was hit or destroyed.

Another missile whipped over the city's rooftops and slammed into a structure close to an ornate building that Baghdadis say is the administrative headquarters of the palaces.

More missiles whooshed through the night, slamming into or near the palace target of the earlier assault.

And then the city fell into almost total silence.

It had been a day of passionate denial and defiance in Baghdad from the Iraqi authorities. They had survived a second night of bombing without suffering much damage.

By midday there were reports that American and British troops had captured two western Iraqi airstrips and were making strong advances on towns in the south of the country. But senior officials smiled at the mere suggestion that Iraq might be faltering in the face of American and British attacks.

"I think they are frightened," said Iraq's minister of information, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, referring to the invaders.

Standing next to him, almost motionless, was his colleague, the minister of the interior, Mohammed Diab Al-Ahmed.

He came with props. He held a short-stock silver-plated Kalashnikov automatic rifle. Strapped around his torso was a khaki vest that held four Kalashnikov clips and a large knife.

"You ask why I am here with my machine gun," the uniformed Al-Ahmed said, holding up his weapon and pointing it at the roof of the vestibule of the Ministry of Information, where he was speaking to journalists. "The Iraqi people swear they will not give up their guns and they will sacrifice themselves."

Both of the men mocked suggestions that American and British forces had made military gains inside Iraqi territory. Al-Ahmed said his officials had been in touch by phone with the Iraqi commander in the southern port town of Umm Qasr and that "he was laughing" at suggestions that enemy forces were seizing it. Nevertheless, by sundown, the town was in the hands of the coalition forces.

Denial has long been a fuel of the Iraqi regime. Based on a trickle-down system of absolute power and fear, in which many officials have the power of life and death over every person below them, dissent is something that barely exists in public.

And so perhaps it is not surprising that even on a day that saw rapid gains by U.S. and British soldiers, these senior Iraqis simply insisted that what was demonstrably happening was in fact not happening.

Toward the end of his words to journalists, however, Al-Ahmed, one of the most powerful and feared men in Iraq, showed some degree of acknowledgement of what was happening militarily beyond Baghdad.

"Maybe they will enter Umm Qasr and Basra, but how will they enter Baghdad?" he said.

"It will be a big oven for them. They can penetrate our borders, but they cannot reach Baghdad. They will try to pull our army and troops out, but we are well aware of their plans and they will fail."

Last night, with flames finishing off many of its most important buildings, Baghdad did appear to be a big oven. But not as Al-Ahmed had meant.


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