Baghdad, March 21 (Reuters): US-led forces unleashed a devastating blitz on Baghdad tonight, triggering giant fireballs and deafening explosions and sending huge mushroom clouds above the city centre, hours after their ground forces thrust deep into Iraqi territory towards the capital where President Saddam Hussein’s supporters were dug in for a last stand.
After two days of smaller air attacks, this was the start of an unparalleled air war, dubbed by the Pentagon as “shock and awe”.
Missiles slammed into the main palace complex of Saddam on the bank of the Tigris river and key government buildings in an onslaught that far exceeded strikes that launched the war on Thursday.
US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the scale of the assault was intended to show Iraqis that Saddam was finished and his rule was “history”.
“The regime is starting to lose control of their country,” Rumsfeld said at the Pentagon. “The confusion of Iraqi officials is growing. Their ability to see what is happening on the battlefield, to communicate with their forces and to control their country is slipping away,” he said.
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the US military’s joint chiefs of staff, said hundreds of targets would be hit in the next 24 hours.
He said US and British forces should secure oil fields in southern Iraq late tonight and were accepting the surrender of several hundred Iraqi troops.
Other Iraqi soldiers were just leaving their units and running away, Myers added. Iraqi resistance so far had been sporadic.
Saddam has concentrated his best forces in Baghdad, where his regime may be hoping to force invaders into dangerous street fighting in hopes of inflicting heavy casualties.
“The important thing is to get to Baghdad to prevent Saddam’s ability to effect any form of command, particularly over weapons of mass destruction,” a senior US officer said.
Reuters witnesses reported seeing anti-aircraft fire and explosions over the northern towns of Mosul and Kirkuk.
“The earth is literally shaking in Baghdad,” Reuters correspondent Khaled Oweis said of the first wave, watching from across the river. A second wave hit targets in the east of the city after a lull of over an hour.
Reuters reporter Nadim Ladki said the attacking planes were apparently flying very low as they hit targets in various parts of the city. “The sound of their engines is very clear,” he said.
Fires broke out in the wrecked buildings. Ambulances, fire engines and police cars rushed around otherwise deserted streets of the city, sirens wailing. Fires raged in different parts of the city.
“The sky is totally lit,” Reuters correspondent Samia Nakhoul said at the height of the first wave, adding that the strikes appeared to be targeting the Republican Guard and the main symbols of Saddam’s rule.
“Black smoke is mushrooming into the air over the presidential palace compound,” she said.
The district housing the information ministry and Iraqi television was among those hit, but state television remained on air. After the first wave, it broadcast pictures of Saddam with his son Qusay, who is in charge of the defence of the capital and Saddam’s power base around Tikrit, 175 km to the northwest. It was unclear when the images were shot.
The telecast capped a day of feverish speculation whether Saddam had been killed during the first wave of air strikes on Thursday. ( )
Reuters reporter Joe Logan in Kurdish-held northern Iraq, on high ground with a view to Kirkuk, an oil city some 30 km away in government-held territory, saw anti-aircraft fire over the city and heard several big explosions.
On a day of swift developments, US Marines captured the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr while other troops seized two airfields in the Iraqi desert as part of a move to encircle Baghdad.
British Marines launched an amphibious and aerial assault and secured key oil installations at the head of the Gulf. Other British troops headed for the port of Basra.
One US armoured unit ran into Iraqi resistance that halted it temporarily near Nassiriya on the Euphrates river while it called for backup. The town is a main strategic crossing point over the Euphrates, 375 km southeast of Baghdad.
The startling speed of a US advance from Kuwait up to 160 km into the Iraqi desert had prompted some British and American officers to predict a swift victory.
Iraqi ministers vowed to “incinerate” the invaders and said Saddam was still alive. They ridiculed the claims of early US successes and predicted invasion forces would soon become bogged down.
British commandos took the Faw peninsula on Iraq’s southern tip, seizing oil export terminals, but Iraqi troops pinned down US Marines pushing towards Umm Qasr for two hours before British artillery blasted the Iraqi defences open.
In the first day of fighting, two US Marines were confirmed killed in action. Eight British and four US soldiers died in a helicopter crash in Kuwait.
Rapid US and British advances seemed to reassure oil markets. Britain’s most senior military officer said only seven oil wells had been set on fire by the Iraqis — not 30 as initially reported — and that all key components of the southern oil fields were safe.