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Reality of War Pierces the Darkness

Baghdad residents hear the sirens, then witness the destruction. Some run, others show curiosity.

March 22, 2003|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — During a pause in the U.S. air war, Interior Minister Mahmud Dhiyab Ahmad appeared at a midday news conference Friday armed with a chrome-plated Kalashnikov rifle.

The tall, robust bureaucrat wore a khaki-colored vest packed with four full ammunition clips and a fearsome-looking knife. A pistol was holstered on his hip.

"You may ask why I am dressed like this and why I have a gun. I took an oath to God that I will put my gun down only on the day of our victory," Ahmad said. "My 12-year-old son has a machine gun too."

Night brought not victory but more bombs.

At 8:05 p.m., the air raid sirens sounded their doleful wail. Five minutes later, Baghdad thundered with fire and smoke as U.S. cruise missiles and B-52 bombers hit target after target -- symbols of President Saddam Hussein's power.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 23, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
Iraqi reward -- A story in Saturday's Section A on events in Baghdad gave an incorrect monetary figure for a reward offered by the Iraqi government for shooting down coalition helicopters or capturing coalition troops. The offer was 50 million Iraqi dinars (about $16,500), not 50,000 dinars, to anyone who shoots down a helicopter or captures an enemy soldier.

In the Old Palace complex, the explosions consumed the seat of the Council of Ministers, camps for the Republican Guard military force and the pyramid-shaped headquarters of the feared Iraqi intelligence service, left glowing from the inside like a saw-toothed jack-o'-lantern.

The Special Security Organization, run by Hussein's son Qusai, is the nerve center of the regime's vast police and security apparatus. The agency pervades life in Iraq with its legions of listeners and informants.

The building burned for hours from within, but its sloped concrete sides, resembling the architecture of the Aztecs, remained intact.

Orange, red and yellow tracer rounds filled the sky, marking the aim of antiaircraft fire, and the ground shook and buildings trembled as if the city were in the throes of an earthquake.

Tomahawk cruise missiles sent flying from the Persian Gulf rained down in quick succession on the palace compound that sits just opposite the commercial heart of the city, stretching 1.7 miles along the west bank of the Tigris River.

Like a choreographed fireworks display, one building after another exploded in bright flames, then was quickly smothered in clouds of dust and debris.

The initial blasts went on for 10 minutes, succeeded by a series of hammer blows. Then, about 9:30 p.m., the B-52s arrived. Low-flying U.S. fighter jets screeched over the capital. Then, the rat-tat-tat of antiaircraft artillery, firing from all directions.

A Different View

As destruction reigned over the west bank of the Tigris, a view of the rest of the city on the east bank, where most civilians live, was eerily normal, except for racing ambulances.

Although the east bank was free from the bombs, windows shattered and car alarms squealed from the shock waves of explosions, rushing by like sharp gusts of wind. At one point, the only creature visible outside the Palestine Hotel was a stray dog running in terror in the middle of Abu Niwas Street.

Inside the Palestine Hotel, some people raced for shelter or crouched in corridors trembling. Others could not resist the spectacle and cautiously approached their windows and balconies. Some Iraqis, their curiosity outweighing good sense, stepped outside into a rain of antiaircraft fragments.

The raids continued until about 10:30 p.m., with sporadic explosions rumbling in the distance.

Fires burned on the southern, eastern and western flanks of the city, although it was impossible to see the exact targets through thick stacks of white and black smoke and dust.

It appeared that the Al Rashid military base south of Baghdad -- struck during the first day of raids Thursday -- was hit again.

The munitions were bigger than those dropped on the Iraqi capital during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and seemed to more accurately target centers of Hussein's power.

So far, the infrastructure on which the city and ordinary Iraqis depend has been left intact. Bridges across the Tigris, rebuilt after previous airstrikes, were still standing. The electric power grid, telephone system and television transmission tower were untouched and service continued.

Iraqi officials offered no immediate word on casualties, but plainclothes security agents seemed extremely nervous about allowing the images of the burning presidential and military buildings to reach the outside world. They shooed news photographers off balconies and confiscated film and cameras.

Rewards Offered

During the height of the bombing, Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmad Jabburi Tai appeared on Iraqi state television and announced that U.S. paratroopers had landed at two locations in western Iraq -- Ar Rutbah and Achetri -- near the border with Jordan. He said local residents were resisting the invaders.

Earlier in the day, Iraqi state radio announced that Hussein had decreed an award of 100 million Iraqi dinars (about $33,000) to anyone who shoots down a U.S. or British airplane, and 50,000 dinars (about $16,000) to anyone who shoots down a helicopter or captures an enemy soldier.

Officials sought to highlight civilian casualties. The government said one woman was killed and 14 civilians hurt Thursday during the first night of bombing.

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