Massive Explosions Rock Central Baghdad

Thursday, 27 March 2003 19:39 by: Anonymous
The Guardian

Thursday 27 March 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Baghdad was heavily bombarded late Thursday night, sending a towering plume of smoke skyward in the strongest blasts felt in the city in days.

Shortly after 11 p.m. in Baghdad (3 p.m. EST), explosions shook the capital near the city center near the Old Palace compound on the west bank of the Tigris River, not far from some of the buildings hit last week.

Other strong explosions followed, some to the southwest of the city.

There also was bombing in the Mosul area in northern Iraq beginning about 10:30 p.m. (2:30 p.m. EST), although there was no immediate word on damage or casualties.

Earlier Thursday, Iraq's defense minister said the real battle for Baghdad will be on its streets, and that Saddam Hussein's regime will prolong the war as long as possible.

"The enemy must come inside Baghdad, and that will be its grave,'' said Defense Minister Sultan Hashem Ahmed.

"We feel that this war must be prolonged so the enemy pays a high price,'' he said at a news conference at a downtown Baghdad hotel.

Asked whether the fighting in Baghdad will be on the streets, Ahmed replied, "Yes.''

He called the two-day sandstorm that engulfed Iraq this week and slowed the U.S.-led coalition "a divine gift to tell the aggressor that he is an aggressor.''

President Bush said Thursday the United States was prepared to fight "however long it takes.''

The Iraqi health minister said 36 civilians were killed and 215 wounded in U.S. airstrikes on Baghdad a day earlier, and he accused U.S.-led forces of deliberately targeting civilians to break the people's will.

Earlier Thursday, explosions were heard in and around the capital, and witnesses said an unknown number of people were killed and injured when a housing complex for employees of a weapons-producing facility came under attack. The Military Industrialization Authority of Iraq complex is in the Al-Youssifiah area, about 12 miles south of the capital.

Another blast about 700 yards west of the Information Ministry, possibly from a missile, sent scores of journalists fleeing. Anti-aircraft guns on the roof of the ministry opened fire, witnesses said, but there was no immediate information on damage or casualties.

One of Baghdad's main telephone facilities also was hit early Thursday, causing some disruptions in service.

Iraqi state television, which was still on the air, reported Thursday that Saddam chaired a meeting of the ruling Baath Party, his top aides and his son, Qusai. Although it did not show any video from that meeting, it said Saddam and the leadership urged Iraqi fighters to exploit what it called the "exhaustion'' of coalition forces.

Silent video was shown of another meeting of Saddam, Qusai and other party officials.

Wednesday's attack on a marketplace in Baghdad's northern Al-Shaab neighborhood killed 14 people, and Iraqi officials blamed U.S. cruise missiles. The U.S. military denied it had targeted the neighborhood.

"They are targeting the human beings in Iraq to decrease their morale,'' Iraqi Health Minister Omeed Medhat Mubarak said. "They are not discriminating, differentiating.''

He said Wednesday's civilian death toll in Baghdad was 36, and put the total number of civilian deaths at 350 since the U.S.-led war on Iraq began a week ago.

In Qatar, the U.S. military said "it was entirely possible'' that an Iraqi missile was responsible for Wednesday's marketplace explosion.

Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said there was an Iraqi missile battery near the neighborhood and that Iraqi has been using old missile stock fired with guidance systems turned off.

"We think it is entirely possible that this may have been an Iraqi missile that went up and came down, or, given the behaviors of the regime lately, it may have been a deliberate attack inside of town,'' Brooks said.

He said the United States had an air mission in the area but not in the neighborhood that was devastated by the explosion.

"We did have an air mission that attacked some targets, not in that area but in an another area, and they did encounter some surface-to-air missile fire,'' Brooks told the daily briefing at the coalition headquarters.

The sandstorms gave way to blue skies Thursday, raising fears among inhabitants that they were in for a day of intensive bombings.

They worried that allied forces would try to make up for two days during which the storm grounded U.S. warplanes and slowed down the advance on the Iraqi capital.

Residents awoke to find everything from cars to dining tables, windows and books under a coat of fine yellow desert sand.

Parts of the city looked almost normal, with hardly a store shuttered, hundreds of shoppers milling around, and the streets jammed with what looked like the usual traffic. But Baghdad's defenders rekindled fires intended to obscure bombing targets, sending clouds of gray smoke drifting across the sky.

Jomaa al-Qurishi, 29, sold newspapers in Abu Nawas Street, a road famous for its art galleries and fish restaurants, on the east bank of the Tigris River.

"I have been selling newspapers at this spot for 13 years and no bombs are going to stop me,'' he said. "Death comes to you at any time wherever you may be.''


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Marine Push Toward Baghdad Meeting Fierce Resistance
By John Kifner
New York Times

Thursday 27 March 2003

WITH THE FIRST MARINE DIVISION, in Iraq, March 27 Marine and other allied units pressing toward Baghdad are coming under nearly constant harassment and ambush by small bands of irregular Iraqi fighters and remnants of army units they bypassed in their rush, and officers fear the resistance will only stiffen as they get nearer the capital.

"We've been contested every inch, every mile on the way up," Col. Ben Saylor, the First Marine Division's chief of staff, said today.

Even as he spoke, a separate Marine unit, Task Force Tarawa, was in the fifth day of a pitched battle in Nasiriya, a city well behind their lines and more than 100 miles south of the First Marines' forward units.

Only hours later, Iraqi fighters spilled out of Samawah, a town a little north of Nasiriya, and fought United States Army troops in an effort to cut vital supply lines along Highway 8.

Asked if he thought the fighting would be more fierce as the allied forces neared the Iraqi Republican Guard divisions south of Baghdad, the colonel replied, "Yeah, I think it's going to be."

The attacks call into question the American strategy of sweeping past Iraqi Army positions and towns to try to reach Baghdad swiftly and, as officers here put it, "cut off the head" of the regime. The attacks also call into question the Americans' confident belief that they would be welcomed as liberators.

Instead, the Americans could find their long and vulnerable supply lines convoys of thousands and thousands of trucks hauling food, fuel, water and ammunition stretching back into Kuwait subject to attack and interdiction.

Delays could strengthen efforts by Saddam Hussein to turn a siege of Baghdad into political theater, portraying it to world opinion as a civilian crisis.

The planned assault on Baghdad is now about three days behind schedule, officers here say, but the delays were caused not by the ambushes but by the huge sandstorm that swept in for several days this week, disrupting the convoys roughly 7,000 vehicles to move the division blinding night-vision goggles and fouling equipment as diverse as pistols, helicopters and computers.

The critical thing, senior Marine officers say, is to maintain the sequence in which American troops under the Army's V Corps move forward simultaneously on the west, and British forces advance on the east, each protecting the flanks of the other.

Colonel Saylor and other intelligence and operations officers here at division headquarters characterized the attackers mainly as members of militias associated with Mr. Hussein and his sons, the Saddam Fedayeen and Al Quds Brigade, along with die-hard Baath Party supporters. The officers believe they may be getting rudimentary military direction from Republican Guard officers.

Their weapons are the light equipment common to guerrillas and armies throughout the third world: shoulder-fired rocket-propelled grenades, Soviet-era AK-47 assault rifles and some small mortars.

But while the Marines say they have easily cut down most of the attackers with overwhelming firepower, they have been impressed in many cases with their tenacity. In one widely recounted incident, a force of about 20 guerrillas charged a Marine armored patrol head on. Only about eight Iraqis survived the first devastating round of fire but they got up and charged again.

"They're pretty gutsy, they're showing a lot of guts," said Capt. Dave Nettles, an intelligence officer with the Seventh Regimental Combat Team, whose light-armored reconnaissance patrols have had several scraps with the guerrillas. "Maybe they don't have anything to lose."

In a similar vein, Colonel Saylor added: "They come, they keep coming. They get up and they come."

"This isn't the varsity," he added. "Is this going to stop us? No, not on a bad day."

Colonel Saylor and other officers said that they had discovered arms caches along the route. Some of the guerrillas are traveling in Toyota pickup trucks. And most seemed to be operating in civilian clothes. The colonel added that in some of the towns, "it's the Baath Party headquarters that's where they pour out of."

Lt. Col. Clarke Lethin, an operations officer, said that "there are battalions stationed throughout the country in order to intimidate," adding, "The Baath Party and those people are still in charge."

Indeed, one reason why the resistance is springing up in the south, behind the advancing American lines, may well be that large units of Baath Party loyalists may have been based there as enforcers, to keep the restive Shiite Muslim majority in line.

The Americans had expected the Shiite population to rise up in favor of the invasion, but this does not appear to have happened on any significant scale as yet. Another factor yet to be weighed is the long tradition of nationalist and anticolonialist sentiment here dating back at least to the British mandate after World War I.

In addition to the machine guns, rockets and automatic grenade-launchers, the Marines are able to call in airstrikes by Cobra helicopter gunships against the attackers.

"We come back with decisive force and take them down immediately," Colonel Saylor said.

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