April 8, 2003
By JOHN F. BURNS
BAGHDAD, Iraq, April 8 — The battle for the heart of Baghdad began before dawn within the sprawling gardens of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Palace and tapered off by early afternoon with the Americans in control of an area running perhaps two miles along the Tigris’s western embankment and a mile or more back from the river.
American tanks moving out of the northern end of the presidential compound into the city’s open streets fired repeatedly in the direction of the Information Ministry and the Iraqi broadcasting headquarters, and came under heavy rocket, machine-gun and mortar fire in return.
Progress was halting, but the sector under American control by evening included many of the buildings considered to have been at the heart of Saddam Hussein’s power: several of his palaces, at least six ministries, the main Baghdad railway station, the Al Rashid hotel, the Parliament building, the government’s main conference center, and the principal government broadcasting headquarters, beside the Information Ministry near the river.
Iraqi state television fell silent and the daily statement from the Iraqi information minister describing all the advances claimed by American forces as fantasy and lies changed to a vow to “pummel the invaders.” There were clear signs that Mr. Hussein’s grip on power was crumbling.
Until the breakout by the Americans today, it had been possible to believe, if only just, that the Iraqi minister, Muhammad Said al-Sahhaf, might not be whistling Dixie, in his accustomed way, when he predicted that the Americans would be slaughtered in a huge Iraqi counterattack.
Today, his credibility disintegrated entirely.
One of Mr. Sahhaf’s top officials, a man who has frequently sought to intimidate Western reporters, was seen in the parking lot of the Palestine Hotel in tears, embracing another official as if for courage.
In the streets for miles around the hotel, the only armed men to be seen were clumps of exhausted, distracted-looking militiamen, slumped in battered armchairs, rifles set aside, drawing heavily on cigarettes.
If there is to be a last-ditch fight by the Republican Guard, Mr. Hussein’s vaunted troops, or by fanatical irregular forces, the men in black tank suits who are the most feared of the Iraqi leader’s enforcers, they were nowhere to be seen.
It was not clear if Mr. Hussein himself was alive. His personal fate remained uncertain as Iraqi rescue teams worked through the day to dig into the rubble of several upscale homes in the Mansur district of west Baghdad that were obliterated by an American bombing attack on Monday afternoon that United States commanders said was intended to kill the Iraqi leader.
Rescue workers pulling at the rubble in a crater 60 feet deep told reporters that they believed as many as 14 people had been killed in the attack, but responded with blank stares and agitated gestures when they were asked if the victims might have included Mr. Hussein.
As dusk fell, the area held by the Americans fell silent, suggesting that Iraqi resistance — fought relentlessly but ultimately hopelessly with rockets, machine guns and other light arms — had died away.
The American advance was secured in street-by-street battles with tanks and other armored vehicles; a foothold in Saddam Hussein’s main presidential compound on the Tigris River was transformed into a bastion of several square miles.
Dogs ran wild in every neighborhood, perhaps abandoned by their owners as they fled for the countryside. Whipping winds toward the late afternoon added to the air of desolation, pulling at mounting piles of garbage on sidewalks and sending some of the refuse rolling like tumbleweed down the empty streets. Gas stations, with long waits only days ago, were virtually abandoned, too.
Hospitals were islands of frantic activity, as cars and pickup trucks joined ambulances in rushing injured civilians to casualty units that were overwhelmed.
The toll on Iraqis appeared to have been severe. Senior officials at the Palestine Hotel on the river’s eastern bank, where most international journalists are lodged, were seen clutching each other in distress. Whether that was from concern about their personal safety or about the pounding being taken by Iraqi forces could not be known.
The American advance was supported by a lone A-10 Warthog tankbuster plane that dived repeatedly through clouds of black smoke from oil fires lighted around the city in the last two weeks in a bid to hinder American bombing.
The plane appeared to be loosing heavy volleys of large-caliber cannon rounds at Iraqi positions ahead of and around the tanks. Bursts of fire and smoke exploded in the battle zone, and some fires continued burning for hours.
Later, an A-10 was shot down near Baghdad’s international airport by an Iraqi surface-to-air missile, Central Command announced. The pilot bailed out and was quickly recovered. It was not clear if this was the same plane.
Independent estimates of casualties among American and Iraqi troops, or of damage to buildings in the area, were unavailable because all four bridges in the center of the city leading from the Tigris’s eastern bank were blocked by the fighting, and all city telephones in Baghdad went out under American bombing last week.
The American gains in western Baghdad were matched by similar American progress in the southeast of the city, where marines supported by Apache helicopters seized control of Al Rashid military base, about three miles from the point where the eastern bank of the Tigris faces the Republican Palace on the west.
Coupled with American advances into northern Baghdad, the advances appeared to place American commanders in a position to mount a pincers movement that could give them control of both sides of the river in central Baghdad far sooner than some commanders had predicted, presenting the Iraqis with the loss of the core of their capital city barely three weeks after the war began.
At least three, and possibly all four, of the central bridges connecting the relatively open terrain of the government quarter in western Baghdad to the densely-populated business and residential districts of eastern Baghdad, home to many of this city’s 4.5 million people, appeared to be under effective American control.
American tanks advanced part-way across the bridges to a point where they could fire at will at any Iraqis approaching the bridges from the eastern end, where what is left of Mr. Hussein’s once-consuming power now resides.
Iraqi casualties appeared to be heavy. Reporters visiting only one of the city’s major hospitals, the Kindi in eastern Baghdad, were told by doctors that the battle for control of the government quarter had brought in 200 to 300 civilian casualties, among them 35 dead.
On a bloodied gurney inside, a 50-year-old man who gave his name as Talib said he had been selling cigarettes from a hand cart in Al Alawi Square, near the city’s main bus station about a mile from the Tigris, when he was hit by shrapnel from an American tank round. Left alone by doctors who appeared to have judged his injuries not to be life-threatening, the man let out repeated roars of pain, saying he had been hit in the back. “Is this Bush’s promised `liberation’?” he shouted.
Daubing the white tiles of the wall beside him with his blood, he added: “No this is a red liberation, a liberation written in blood. Bush said he would disarm Saddam, and look how he’s doing it now — killing us, one by one. Please ask him, how do you liberate people by killing them?”
One man in a green hospital smock, apparently despairing at the sight of newly arriving dead and wounded, threw a punch at a French photographer, striking her only lightly but unbalancing himself and falling to the ground. Other medical staff members hurriedly urged the journalists to leave, fearing, they said, that more serious injury could be done to them if they lingered.
The heavy bombing on Monday aimed at killing Mr. Hussein had a profound psychological effect on the city. Workers gathered around the wreckage of a restaurant adjoining the crater left by the bomb, the Sa’ah, on 14th of Ramadan Street, seemed at a loss when asked who had been killed in the bombing. The restaurant was a favorite of the Iraqi political elite, with its black marbled facade and fast-food kebabs.
This morning, the official Iraqi television failed to broadcast a regular news bulletin, and showed instead only old footage of Mr. Hussein receiving popular adulation at rallies.
Shortly after 11 a.m., amid the rage of battle around the broadcast center, television screens went blank, and the government radio went off the air.
Iraqi drivers for some senior officials said they had fled the Palestine and an adjoining hotel and headed out into the Iraqi hinterland by the one exit road apparently not yet blocked by American forces: north-eastward toward the Iranian border.
The growing dominance of American forces became clear toward evening when two F-18 Hornets came high out of the milky sun of the late afternoon, launching missile after missile at a 15-storey building on the Tigris River’s eastern bank that has served as a sniper’s nest for Iraqi fighters firing at American tanks on the opposite bank.
Their target, caramel yellow with black trim, and arched upper windows that served perfectly all day as a launch pad for the rockets and machine-gun and mortar fire the Iraqis rained on the Americans, was the Board of Youth and Sports, a totemic stronghold of Mr. Hussein’s older son, Uday.
That made the attack deeply symbolic, since Uday, 38, has used his father’s power to proclaim himself the czar of Iraqi sports — with the malevolent twist that several of the sports buildings he controls, according to Iraqis and countless Western human rights reports, have been used as centers for torturing all who vex the younger Mr. Hussein.
Those unfortunates, Iraqis say, have ranged from losing members of the national soccer team to anyone who whispers criticism of Mr. Hussein the father or Mr. Hussein, the firstborn son.
How Iraqis will respond when the Iraqi ruler and his sons are finally toppled will be central to the judgments history makes of the war, and perhaps a foretaste came on the fifth or sixth run of one of the F-18’s.
A missile was fired from low altitude and struck a bulls-eye on the building’s southern facade, at about the 10th floor, setting off a fireball leaping into the sky, followed by a plume of thick black smoke.
An Iraqi man of about 30, wearing a track suit and watching from a window on an upper floor of the Sheraton Hotel a mile down the river to the south, leaned out to shout something to two reporters for American publications who had made of their own 12th-floor balcony a grandstand seat.
Thumbs up, grinning, the man punched the air, triumphant.
Only in afterthought, perhaps concerned that he might have been overheard by other Iraqis, or perhaps that he might be identified from reports the Americans would write, did he retract — with a scatological outburst about America, but still with the same broad grin.
Until today, American airstrikes had come mostly like thunderbolts, bombs and missiles invisible until impact, the aircraft delivering the bombs so high, so fast, or so enveloped by night that they were phantoms to the people of Baghdad.
No longer. For 30 minutes, the American planes soared and banked and dived, disappearing at one moment into skies turned inky black by the burning oil trenches around Baghdad that have been lit in an attempt to foil American air attacks, returning the next lower, faster, gunmetal gray in the evening sun.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company