Bombs rock Baghdad

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 21, 2003

Associated Press writer

BAGHDAD, Iraq – The streets of Baghdad were silent and empty Friday night, with fires raging inside Saddam Hussein’s Old Palace compound and a halo of smoke hanging in the sky, after the Iraqi capital endured the most ferocious attack of the war.

The attack, punctuated by the blasts of Tomahawk missiles striking targets across Baghdad, was launched just after 9 p.m. as the U.S.-led forces stepped up their aerial assault on the city.

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The squeal of the air raid sirens in the Iraqi capital preceded the ringing explosions, cutting through an eerie silence that enveloped the city as night fell.

The massive assault of 320 Tomahawk missiles launched from ships in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea filled the sky with towering fireballs. Two Iraqi palaces were among the buildings destroyed by the third missile attack on the city in two days.

The attack was apparently coordinated to simultaneously strike against Baghdad and two other cities, Mosul and Kirkuk in the north. The Iraqi defense minister, speaking as the missiles fell, said the coalition was also targeting the southern cities of Basra and Nassiriyah.

The air barrage came with U.S. ground troops already a third of the way to Baghdad, and with Saddam Hussein and his regime fighting to demonstrate their control of the country despite reports of surrendering Iraqi troops and the loss of strategic sites.

Baghdad, a city of 5 million, was extraordinarily quiet before the heaviest attack yet lit up the night sky. At one point, a half-dozen adjoining plumes of smoke twisted into the sky.

The spectacular blasts lit up the horizon, illuminating the city even as they devastated it. In response, the Iraqis opened up with anti-aircraft bursts that winked in the darkness. At one point, the sound of a missile roared through the street before exploding into a fireball.

Three major fires raged on Saddam Hussein’s Old Palace compound, which stretches for 1.7 miles on the west bank of the Tigris River. The compound is the official center of the Iraqi state, and home to the offices of the prime minister’s staff, the Cabinet and a Republican Guard camp.

Its turqoised-domed main building appeared untouched. But a building next to the palace was on fire, and black smoke billowed from a 10-story building in another part of the compound.