- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2003

BAGHDAD Anti-aircraft tracers flashed across the skies of Baghdad and explosions sounded in the city at dawn today, less than two hours after President Bush's deadline expired for Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq or face war.
American messages were being broadcast on Iraqi airwaves, saying, "This is the day you have been waiting for," according to Al Jazeera television, based in Qatar.
It was not immediately clear how U.S. forces were able to take over Iraqi broadcast frequencies.
No airplanes were visible in the skies over Baghdad as the air-raid sirens blared and yellow and white anti-aircraft tracers were seen in the sky.
A number of strong explosions went off in the city, one of them raising a ball of fire toward the southern part of the capital. Reuters news agency said heavy plumes of black smoke billowed from the east after the same target appeared to have been hit three or four times. Several explosions later hit the city center.
After about a half-hour, the fire from the ground and the explosions stopped, and the capital returned to the hush that had reigned over the city throughout the night as the deadline neared.
Yesterday at the Kuwaiti border, 17 Iraqi soldiers surrendered to U.S.-led forces at nightfall. They were said to be in the custody of Kuwaiti authorities.
U.S. military and Kuwaiti officials confirmed the surrender, but there was confusion about how many gave themselves up.
Capt. Darren Theriault, commander of the headquarters company of the 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, told journalists attached to the unit that 15 Iraqis had been taken prisoner.
A Kuwaiti official who declined to be identified said that the Iraqis had surrendered to the Kuwaiti military and numbered only three or four.
Jim Wilkinson, director of strategic communications for U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar, said he understood there were two separate surrenders one with 15 Iraqi soldiers and the other with two.
In Baghdad, members of Iraq's parliament declared their loyalty to Saddam and renewed their confidence in his leadership.
"We are dedicated to martyrdom in defense of Iraq under your leadership," they said in a message to Saddam issued at the end of their session.
Speaker Saadoun Hammadi opened the meeting by saying: "The people of Iraq, with a free and honest will, have spoken decisively and clearly in choosing their mujahid leader Saddam Hussein president of the country."
Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, meanwhile, appeared at a news conference in Baghdad, putting to rest rumors that he had abandoned the Iraqi regime and declaring that he, like other Iraqis, stood with Saddam.
Ruling out a last-minute political solution, Mr. Aziz told the hurriedly convened news conference: "We are ready to fight, prepared to face the aggressors and are certain of victory."
The Ba'ath Party loyalists and security forces have stood behind hundreds of sandbagged positions built throughout Baghdad during the past two weeks. Some were inside foxholes. Most were armed with assault rifles, but some had rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns. On the city's southern fringes, several anti-aircraft guns could be seen.
Even Baghdad's traffic police wore helmets and carried assault rifles.
The Ba'athists, who wore olive-green uniforms and were deployed in clusters of fours and fives, are widely expected to take charge of keeping law and order in Baghdad and other main Iraqi cities in the event of war.
Saddam, Iraq's president of 23 years, also was expected to look to them and other loyal militiamen and troops to deal with any anti-government stirrings by groups tempted to capitalize on the chaos caused by war to try to seize power.
There was no sign yesterday of Iraq's army troops or armor in or outside Baghdad, where Saddam is widely expected to make his final stand against any invaders.
In Iraq's southern no-fly zone, U.S. and British warplanes attacked several sites, including an airfield that officials said may harbor Scud missiles capable of reaching Israel. Also hit were artillery sites within range of U.S. and British forces concentrated in Kuwait.
Baghdad residents did last-minute shopping at the food stores that remained open, seemingly resigned that war would come within hours.
"We cry for Baghdad," said civil servant and part-time Baghdad historian Abdel-Jabar al-Tamimi. "Tonight, we shall be awake waiting for the bombs to fall, but we will also remember that God is stronger than oppression. Wars come and go, but Baghdad will remain."
Shelves in many shops in the commercial heart of Baghdad were nearly empty after store owners moved their merchandise to warehouses, fearing bombing or looting.
"I took all my goods home for fear of the bombing," said Tariq Khalil, who owns a store that sells eyeglass frames on Al-Rasheed Street, Baghdad's oldest surviving road.
The dinar, Iraq's currency, also lost ground against the U.S. dollar, slumping to about 2,900, compared with 2,800 on Tuesday and 2,600 a week ago.
Along the road from Baghdad to Jordan, gas stations were crowded, but traffic was thin.
Some gas stations along the sand-swept route had emptied their tanks trying to meet demand. The cost of a gallon of gas soared to nearly $4 from its usual 8 cents.

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