- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 22, 2003

BAGHDAD A huge explosion shook the center of Iraq's capital before dawn today, hours after the most ferocious attack of the war left Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's Old Palace in flames and Baghdad shrouded in smoke.

Aircraft could be heard overhead, but it was not clear what had been targeted. After the single blast, sirens presumably from ambulances or police cars could be heard racing through the city.

The blast at first light shattered the eerie silence that had fallen over Baghdad after the rain of missiles yesterday evening.

The barrage, which began just after 9 p.m., filled the sky with towering fireballs as the Tomahawk cruise missiles hit and air-raid sirens squealed. At one point, a half-dozen adjoining plumes of smoke twisted into the sky.

A barrage of explosives had crashed down yesterday on Baghdad, sending enormous fireballs and clouds of smoke billowing high into the night sky above the Iraqi capital.

Some two hours later, the distinct sound of aircraft could be heard over Baghdad for the first time since the start of the U.S.-led attack on Iraq. A huge fire raged to the south of the city and the red glow of the flames illuminated the horizon.

The presidential compound at the Old Palace also includes a camp of the Republican Guard and presidential units that are the foundation of Saddam's control.

In mid-January, U.N. inspectors paid a surprise visit to the compound, but reported finding no banned weapons or materials.

It was not clear what target had been hit on the southern part of the city, but huge black clouds of smoke were clearly visible, pouring into the darkened sky.

A major oil refinery, as well as military installations, is located at the south of the city.

The first attack on Baghdad came from 320 Tomahawk cruise missiles fired by ships in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, said Rear Adm. Matthew G. Moffit, commander of the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk battle group.

The missiles were intended for targets in and around Baghdad, he said, and they were fired about 20 minutes before the first explosions occurred.

At the same time as explosions rocked Baghdad, Al Jazeera reported large booms and flashes of light in three directions from Mosul, though no direct hits in the northern city itself. Explosions came from the direction of Dohuk in the north, Kirkuk and the Mosul-Syrian border highways.

The earlier U.S.-led aerial attack was heralded by the sound of air-raid sirens and explosions, followed quickly by major detonations in the city of 5 million. Many buildings were ablaze in the heart of the capital, with towering red, pink and brown clouds rising high into the air.

In response, the Iraqis opened up with anti-aircraft bursts that flashed in the darkness.

The spectacular blasts lit up the night sky, illuminating the city even as they decimated it. Clouds of smoke extended high above Baghdad as fires burned; at one point, the sound of a missile roared through the street before the missile exploded into a fireball.

Three major fires raged on Saddam sprawling Old Palace compound on the west side of the Tigris River, officially the heart of the Iraqi state that includes the offices of the prime minister's staff and the Cabinet. The turquoise-domed main building appeared to be untouched.

However, a building next to the palace was on fire and black smoke billowed from a 10-story building in another part of the compound.

White flashes could be seen in the areas west of the palace in Baghdad. The area includes many government buildings, including the main intelligence center and headquarters of the ruling Ba'ath party.

"Baghdad is burning," said a correspondent for the Al Jazeera television network. "What more can we say."

The lights in the city dimmed, but came back on once the bombing started. Red tracer fire shot across the night sky as the U.S. plan to "shock and awe" Iraqi troops began.

But even as the explosions resounded in the background, the Iraqi defense minister, Lt. Gen. Sultan Hashim Ahmed, told reporters coalition forces were targeting the southern cities of Basra and Nassiriyah.

More than a half-hour after the attack began, Iraqi radio and television were still broadcasting and the power stayed on.

The official Iraqi news agency reported that Saddam Hussein had offered a reward of the equivalent of $14,000 to any Iraqi who kills an enemy soldier, and $28,000 to anyone who captures an enemy soldier alive.

A semblance of normalcy had returned to Baghdad earlier yesterday after U.S.-led bombings Thursday morning and then again at night.

There was traffic on the streets, many shops were open and people were out during the daylight hours.

Many shops and cafes remained open, providing the city with a surface appearance of everyday life except for the armed Ba'ath party activists and jeeps mounted with heavy machine guns cruising the streets.

Mohammed Sa'eed al-Sahhaf, Iraq's information minister, acknowledged yesterday that one of Saddam's homes was hit in an earlier U.S. bombardment, but he said no one was hurt.

"They rocketed the residence of his household," Mr. al-Sahhaf said at a news conference. "But thank God, they are all safe."

The minister lashed out at the "criminal George Bush and his gang."

"They are superpower of villains. They are superpower of Al Capone," he said. "We will not allow them to get out of this quagmire, which we trapped them in. They will see their end there."

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