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March 31, 2003

(Reuters Photo)
Air Raids Pound Baghdad, Fire Rages Near Center


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March 31

By Hassan Hafidh

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - At least five huge explosions rocked central Baghdad late on Monday, with two coming from the area of a presidential complex used by President Saddam Hussein, his son Qusay and aides, Reuter witnesses said.

"A big, big, big cloud of smoke is coming out of the compound. Maybe they are using bigger bombs than before," Reuters correspondent Samia Nakhoul said. The sprawling complex had been hit more than once earlier in a day of sustained air attacks.

Flames could be seen rising into the night from one of the other blasts which rocked the central Palestine Hotel.

"It is very frightening. There is a lot of panic. I can hear people shouting and screaming in the street below" the hotel, she added.

Anti-aircraft fire was heard just before the explosions.

Another explosion came from the headquarters of the Iraqi Olympic Committee, headed by Saddam's eldest son Uday.

"It is on fire. It's a huge fire," Reuters correspondent Khaled Yacoub Oweis said.

The building stands next to the Martyrs' Memorial, a stunning monument in blue marble of two half domes facing each other, built in memory of the thousands of Iraqi soldiers who died in the 1980-1988 war with Iran.

A telephone exchange in Alwiyah, about one mile from the hotel, was also hit, a Reuters witness said.

The attacks followed a day of repeated air raids on this city of over five million people, targeting key government buildings in the city center and positions on the outskirts of the Iraqi capital.

Nakhoul said earlier that U.S. or British warplanes had screamed low over the center of the city.

To the south, an intense artillery barrage could be heard during the afternoon. Reuters correspondent Nadim Ladki said the sound of explosions also seemed to be coming from the west of the city, from the direction of Saddam International Airport. On the 12th day of the war, U.S. combat units closed to within 50 miles south of Baghdad, battling Republican Guards and other Iraqi units for a bridge over the Euphrates river at Hindiya, between Kerbala and Hilla.

A blast in the palace complex on Monday afternoon sent white smoke spewing into the sky. The compound on the west bank of the river Tigris was also targeted on Sunday and was hit by several missiles in the first days of the U.S.-led war to overthrow Saddam, which started on March 20.

Raids on Monday also struck Baghdad's Information Ministry and at least two telephone exchanges. A cruise missile hit the roof of the Information Ministry overnight, smashing glass panels and damaging satellite dishes.

A Reuters reporter who visited the scene was not allowed to go inside the building to survey further damage.


Domestic state television, used by Saddam to address the nation, was off the air in the morning, but broadcasts resumed after midday, four hours later than usual.

A source at the ministry said the disruption was probably caused by bomb damage. Iraq's international satellite channel kept broadcasting while the domestic channel was off the air.

It was the second attack in three days on Iraq's official information headquarters. The overnight blasts also triggered a fire near the ministry complex. Smoke and dust billowed high into the sky and firefighters rushed to douse the blaze.

The raids also scored two direct hits on the city center telephone exchange, flattening the six-story building and leaving it a heap of rubble and twisted metal. The exchange was also bombed in the 1991 Gulf War and later rebuilt.

The hit brings to seven the number of exchanges knocked out in the bombings. There are about 20 exchanges in Baghdad, but making a telephone call is already almost impossible without resort to satellite communications.

U.S.-led forces also mounted a sustained series of bombings on the city outskirts where Republican Guard units are believed to be dug in to defend the capital.

Air raids have increased in intensity over the past 48 hours. U.S. Central Command said on Monday that the overnight air raids had been conducted by B-1, B-2 and B-52 bombers in what it called a "historic bomber package" -- the first time the three had been used to strike the same area at the same time. Iraqis said a missile crashed into a farm at the weekend in the village of al-Madeen, around 13 miles southeast of Baghdad, killing 17 civilians and wounding 10.

Reuters reporters who went to the village saw five demolished houses, and the bodies of dead livestock. Some electricity pylons had also been toppled.

Iraq says 62 people were killed and 49 wounded in a devastating explosion in a crowded Baghdad market last Friday which it blames on a U.S. attack.

The United States is still checking whether its forces were responsible. U.S. officials have suggested that a previous blast in a separate Baghdad market might have been caused by an Iraqi anti-aircraft missile crashing back to earth.

photo credit and caption:
A pre-strike and post-strike photograph of Baghdad state-controlled TV Studio and broadcasting facility shown during a briefing in Qatar, March 30, 2003. An intense artillery barrage opened up on Baghdad's southern outskirts on March 31 as warplanes from the U.S.-led invasion force screamed low over the Iraqi capital and anti-aircraft fire crackled in the sky. "The artillery fire is suddenly very intense. We can hear it coming from the south. It's unusual," said Reuters correspondent Samia Nakhoul. Photo by Reuters (Handout)

Copyright 2003 Reuters News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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