| A puppy looks for food outside Baghdad on Friday. (Reuters)
Baghdad, April 4 (Reuters): Residents fled suburbs near the Iraqi capital’s main airport towards the city centre today, running from what one called a “night of hell” as US forces moved in.
Cars loaded with blankets and possessions on the roof raced up the main highway from the airport as residents felt that the 16-day-old US-led war had arrived in Baghdad.
There was little sign of new military preparations, aside from groups of green- uniformed militiamen armed with automatic rifles manning barricades throughout the city.
Most shops were shut and people stayed indoors, confused as reports — not carried on state media — percolated through that Saddam International Airport had fallen.
US commanders said the airport was indeed now under their control.
“There was banging all night. It was a night of hell,” said one woman, trembling after her drive from the airport district.
The city centre itself was initially deserted but around mid-morning some life returned, as a few private cars ventured out and Baghdad’s big red double-decker buses resumed services. There were some queues at petrol stations that were open.
Most were closed because all electric power in the city went off overnight, but some stations used their own generators. In the early afternoon, explosions could be heard from the direction of the international airport. Elsewhere, it was hard to tell where there was fresh bomb damage.
Air force command headquarters, struck three days ago, appeared to have suffered a fresh hit. US-led forces said they had targeted the building in central Baghdad.
It was not clear whether the power outage, which continued through the morning, was caused by bombing or by the Baghdad authorities.
The completeness of the blackout suggested it might have been done to conceal the overnight Iraqi troop movements. The weather was hot and black smoke drifted over the city from oil-filled trenches set alight on the outskirts in an attempt to thwart US-led air raids. State television, off the air for a while, came back on, broadcasting nationalist songs in praise of President Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi army.
The television said Saddam had ordered compensation within 72 hours for all families whose homes were destroyed by bombardment. He also ordered generous payments to families of the killed and injured.
Iraqi satellite television showed a recorded message by an unidentified, but senior-looking, Shia cleric calling on Iraqis to “do their duty before God” and fight the US-led invasion of their “holy, Muslim country”.
The broadcast came a day after influential Iraqi Shia leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani urged followers to remain neutral in any fighting — a step which experts said could undermine Saddam’s hopes of rallying Iraqis in a “holy war” against US and British troops.