Explosions, air raid sirens heard in Baghdad

Published 5:39 am Wednesday, March 19, 2003

By Staff
BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- Anti-aircraft fire and explosions were heard across Baghdad after air raid sirens went off in the capital at dawn Thursday.
Moments after the explosions began, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters in Washington, ''The opening stages of the disarmament of the Iraqi regime have begun.''
No airplanes were visible in the skies over Baghdad as the air raid sirens blared. Yellow and white tracers from anti-aircraft fire were seen in the sky, and a number of strong explosions went off in the city.
One explosion raised a ball of fire toward the southern part of the capital.
With the sun just rising, a handful of cars were speeding through the streets, but no pedestrians were out.
The military action began less than two hours after the clock ran out on a deadline set by President Bush for Saddam Hussein and his sons to leave Iraq or face war. The 48-hour deadline, set Monday after attempts at a diplomatic solution failed, ended at 8 p.m. Wednesday EST and 4 a.m. Baghdad time.
The war was described as ''a vital part of the international war on terrorism'' in a formal notice sent to Congress by Bush.
After about a half hour, the fire from the ground and the explosions stopped, and the capital returned to the hush that reigned over the city throughout the night as the deadline neared. The only sound heard was that of a mosque's muezzin making the call for the faithful to come to dawn Islamic prayers.
In Washington, a senior government official said U.S. forces had launched a missile strike against a ''target of opportunity'' near Baghdad after U.S. intelligence detected the possibility Iraqi leaders were in the area.
The official declined to identify the leaders who were targeted or to say whether the attack was successful.
During the night, the streets of Baghdad had cleared, with little sign of military preparation as the deadline passed.
The previous day, hundreds of armed members of Saddam's Baath party and security forces took up positions throughout Baghdad, behind sandbags and in foxholes. But during the night, about half of them left the streets.
There was no sign during the day of regular army troops or armor in or outside Baghdad, where Saddam is widely expected to make his final stand against any invaders.
Al-Shabab -- the most watched station in Iraq and owned by Saddam's son Odai -- broadcast hours of patriotic songs Wednesday and extensive archive footage of Saddam greeting crowds and firing off a rifle.
At night, the station showed a 1991 American thriller, ''The Guilty,'' starring Bill Pullman. (The plot involves U.S. lawyer who rapes an employee and hires his estranged son to kill her.)
Almost every store was shut in Baghdad during the day and traffic was light as residents continued to stream out of the capital, heading for the relative safety of the countryside.
In the minutes after the 4 a.m. ultimatum expired, Iraqi TV replayed footage of a pro-Saddam march earlier in the week, with people brandishing rifles, chanting slogans and carrying pictures of the Iraqi leader.
All was quiet, too, in the Kurdish north.
At the edge of the autonomous zone, armed Kurdish militiamen manned a checkpoint on a muddy hillside under sporadic rain. The only lights were the tips of their cigarettes.
Since Bush set the deadline, Iraqi officials remained defiant in the face of about 300,000 U.S. and British troops backed by 1,000 warplanes and a fleet of warships -- all ready for an attack on Iraq to rid it of weapons of mass destruction that Washington and London say Saddam is concealing.
Members of Iraq's parliament declared their loyalty to Saddam on Wednesday and renewed their confidence in his leadership.
Speaker Saadoun Hammadi opened the meeting by saying: ''The people of Iraq, with a free and honest will, have spoken decisively and clearly in choosing their mujahid leader Saddam Hussein president of the country.''
Bahrain, a small Persian Gulf state allied with the United States, offered Saddam a haven Wednesday, the first such offer to be publicly extended to the Iraqi leader as Arabs scramble to avert war. There was no immediate comment in Baghdad on the offer.
The Baath loyalists and security forces, meanwhile, stood behind hundreds of sandbagged positions built throughout the city over the past two weeks. Some were inside foxholes. Most were armed with Kalashnikovs, but some had rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine-guns. On the city's southern fringes, several anti-aircraft guns could be seen.
Even Baghdad's traffic policemen wore helmets and carried assault rifles.
The Baathists, who wore olive-green uniforms and deployed in clusters of fours and fives, are widely expected to take charge of keeping law and order in Baghdad and other main Iraqi cities in the event of war.
Saddam, Iraq's president of 23 years, also was expected to look to them and other loyal militiamen and troops to deal with any anti-government stirrings by groups tempted to capitalize on the chaos caused by war to try to seize power.
The Iraqi leadership rejected Bush's ultimatum Tuesday in a statement issued after a joint meeting of the top executive Revolution Command Council and the Baath Party -- chaired by Saddam.
Asked after Wednesday's parliament's session whether Saddam would bow to U.S. demands and flee, Hammadi said: ''He will be in front of everyone. He will fight and guide our country to victory. This is absolutely unthinkable.''
Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf told a news conference Wednesday that Washington was deceiving American troops about the number of casualties they would sustain.
Earlier on Wednesday, Baghdad residents did last-minute shopping at the food stores that remained open, seemingly resigned that war would come within hours.
Shelves in many shops in the commercial heart of Baghdad were nearly empty after store owners moved their merchandise to warehouses, fearing bombing or looting.
U.N. weapons inspectors flew out of Iraq on Tuesday, ordered out by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan after the United States indicated war was near.
Foreign Minister Naji Sabri criticized Annan for withdrawing the inspectors as well as humanitarian workers and U.N. observers on the Iraq-Kuwait border, calling it a violation of U.N. resolutions that cleared ''the path for aggression.''