- The Washington Times - Monday, March 24, 2003

BAGHDAD Aircraft screamed in low over the Iraqi capital, shaking buildings early today with a heavy bombardment. As anti-aircraft guns responded, a call of "God is great" rang out from a mosque.
Heavy explosions hit Baghdad through the night. A large one shook a Ministry of Planning building within the Old Palace, a presidential compound hit in earlier attacks.
It appeared to be the strongest air strikes since Friday night, when Tomahawk missiles rained down on the city of 5 million people, smashing several of Saddam Hussein's palaces and government buildings.
Before each blast, low-flying aircraft could be heard. The loudspeaker from a mosque's minaret blared, "God is great" and "Thanks be to God" apparently to keep up residents' spirits, because it was well before the call to dawn Muslim prayers.
Reports that a coalition plane had been downed over Baghdad sparked a search yesterday by hundreds of Iraqi police and security agents for any survivors. They shot into the reeds and shallow water alongside the Tigris River. They set fire to brush in some spots, and small boats patrolled the river's edge.
At the U.S. Central Command in Qatar, Army Lt. Gen. John Abizaid denied that any coalition planes had been shot down or pilots parachuted.
Lebanese TV Al-Manar, owned by the Islamic militant group Hezbollah, said that a British pilot was captured in Baghdad, and that the search along the Tigris was for his co-pilot. Qatari-based Al Jazeera satellite TV said a Western pilot had been captured and another was being sought.
Security men armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles swarmed to the Tigris after witnesses reported seeing parachutes fall alongside its west bank soon after air raid sirens had sounded in Baghdad.
Crowds and television crews gathered quickly at the scene.
The excitement caused bumper-to-bumper traffic on streets leading to the river and on bridges. Hundreds of people parked their cars and got out to watch the search, and some tried to join in. Police quickly blocked roads leading to the area.
Some Iraqis brought their children, and others arrived waving huge Iraqi flags from their car windows.
During the search, repeated explosions could be heard at a distance. In the sky were vapor trails and dark clouds from fuel the Iraqis were burning to conceal targets in the capital.
Not far from the scene, life proceeded normally in the commercial al-Karada area in central Baghdad. Many food and butcher stores were open, as were barber shops, cafes and restaurants.
Earlier in the day, Iraqi officials said 77 civilians had been killed and 503 wounded by coalition air strikes across the country.
Information Minister Mohammed Said al-Sahhaf said the civilians were killed Saturday in Basra, where coalition forces captured the airport and a key bridge. Of the wounded, 366 were in Basra and 106 in Baghdad, he said.
Air raid sirens went off as clouds of thick smoke hung over Baghdad and explosions from the U.S.-led bombing campaign boomed in the distance. At least some smoke came from oil fires that residents said were set to shroud targets in the city.
German public television ARD said a cruise missile hit a residential area in the city yesterday morning, destroying five houses and injuring at least two persons.
Iraqi state television said air strikes also hit the city of Tikrit, Saddam's hometown. Al-Arabiya, an Arab satellite television news channel, reported that four persons were killed in those attacks.
As U.S.-led troops raced through the desert toward Baghdad and American commanders said Saddam's regime was losing control, Iraqi officials insisted their situation was brighter.
Mr. Sahhaf praised what he described as heroic resistance by Iraqis in the southern port town of Umm Qasr, where coalition troops engaged in street-to-street fighting with defenders.
"Iraqi fighters in Umm Qasr are giving the hordes of American and British mercenaries the taste of definite death," Mr. Sahhaf said. "Those mercenaries and hired guns are seeing death in front of them, the resistance of Iraqis in a modest and small port. We have drawn them into a quagmire, and they will never get out of it."
An Iraqi military spokesman, Lt. Gen. Hazem Al-Rawi, claimed Iraqi forces had shot down five allied warplanes and two helicopters since the war began. There has been no confirmation of such incidents by allied officials.
In Washington, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Iraqis clearly "are not a beaten force."
"And for those who think this is going to go on for some time, [they] are right," he said on ABC's "This Week." "The hardest part is yet to come. We expected the reaction we've gotten so far. The future will be a little bit tougher."
Gen. Myers also said that any surrender negotiations with Iraqis were going on at a "lower level" and involved individual units not top Iraqi officials.
"They have chosen another path," he said. "It's obviously going to be a very disastrous path for the Iraqi regime, and everybody would like to see this war end. And it's up to them."

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