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Fear, Defiance and Curiosity Amid Chaos

U.S. attack comes from all directions as buildings fall and fires spread. Many run for shelter. Others come out to watch.

March 23, 2003|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Friday night in Baghdad brought thunder, fire and smoke -- and the image of the pyramid-shaped headquarters of the Iraqi intelligence service glowing from the inside like a saw-toothed jack o' lantern as it burned from repeated hits from U.S. cruise missiles and B-52 bombers.

Orange, red and yellow tracer rounds filled the sky, marking the aim of anti-aircraft fire, and the ground shook and buildings trembled as though the city was in the throes of a series of violent earthquakes.

After a sunny, peaceful day, when many Baghdad residents put aside their fears and ventured outside, the air raid sirens sounded their doleful wail at 8:05 p.m. Five minutes later, a giant tap dance of explosions began.

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

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

The initial blasts went on for 10 minutes, succeeded by a series of more leisurely hammer blows. Then, at around 9:30 p.m., the B-52s arrived. The attack flowed, punctuated by a constant wail of civil defense sirens, the occasional screeching of low-flying U.S. fighter jets and the rat-tat-tat of anti-aircraft artillery firing futilely from all directions to intercept the attackers.

Across the river, windows shattered and car alarms squealed from the shock waves of the explosions, which rushed by like sharp gusts of wind. At one point, looking down from the balcony of the Palestine Hotel, the only creature moving was a stray tawny dog -- loping in terror in the middle of Abu Niwas Street which parallels the embankment.

Inside the hotel, some raced for shelters or crouched in corridors trembling. Others could not resist the spectacle and cautiously approached their windows and balconies. Some Iraqis, drawn by curiosity rather than good sense, stepped out onto the sidewalks, braving the shower of anti-aircraft fragments careening across the skies.

The raids continued until about 10:30 p.m. Sporadic distant explosions were heard like the rumble of distant thunder until the first call to prayer before dawn Saturday.

During the night, fires could be seen burning on the southern, eastern and western flanks of the city, although it was impossible to discern the exact targets, and thick stacks of white and black smoke and dust drifted overhead. It appeared that the al-Rashid military base south of Baghdad -- which was struck during the first day of raids Thursday -- may have been hit again.

The battered intelligence headquarters has served as the home of the much-feared Special Security, the organization that pervades life in Iraq with its legions of listeners and informants. It burned for hours from within, but its sloped concrete sides, resembling the architecture of the Aztecs, remained intact.

The attack was by far the fiercest on the Iraqi capital since the 1991 Persian Gulf War. But the first impression was that the munitions were highly accurate. There was no immediate reports of any bombs striking civilian areas and television, telephones and electric power all continued to function.

As mayhem and destruction reigned on the west bank of the Tigris, a view of the rest of the city on the east bank was eerily normal, except for racing ambulances.

Plain-clothed 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 in the hotel and brusquely took away film and cameras.

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

Throughout the day, officials continued to predict victory and preach defiance. That attitude was clear in the appearance of Interior Minister Mahmoud Diab Ahmad at a news conference. Robust and tall with graying hair, he held a shiny chrome-plated Kalashnikov rifle in one hand and wore an olive khaki ammo vest carrying four full clips and a fearsome looking knife. On his hip he had a holstered pistol.

"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 one the day of our victory. And my 12-year old son has a machine gun too," he told assembled reporters.

Hunting for successes, 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.

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