THE ATTACK: 3 Journalists Die in U.S. Strikes on 2 Baghdad Buildings

April 8, 2003

By JOHN F. BURNS

BAGHDAD, Iraq, April 8 — Scenes of near panic broke out today inside the Palestine Hotel here, with journalists rushing down darkened stairwells to the hotel forecourt, many wearing flak jackets and helmets, to escape a strike on the building that killed two of their colleagues.

The strike was inflicted by an American tank shell that destroyed a room on the 15th floor on the hotel’s east side with a view of the battle raging across the Tigris River at the presidential compound.

Several reporters described seeing one of three tanks that had taken up positions on the western edge of the Jumhuriya bridge, a mile away to the northwest, raising its barrel and rotating it towards the Palestine moments before the impact.

In a room four floors down, about 100 feet from the point where the tank shell hit between the two rooms, the building shuddered as if an earthquake had struck.

Reports from the American military headquarters in Qatar quoted officers as saying at first that the tank fired only after it was fired at from positions in the hotel, an assertion challenged by witnesses.

The military did not reiterate the assertion of sniper fire in a later briefing. Officials said the strike on the Palestine and two other journalistic targets were being investigated.

“This coalition does not target journalists,” said Brig. Gen. Vincent K. Brooks at Central Command.

He added that “anything that has happened as a result of our fire or other fires would always be considered as an accident.”

The third journalist killed in an American strike today was Tariq Ayoub, 34, a reporter and producer for Al Jazeera television, the Qatar-based Arabic satellite channel. Mr. Ayoub, a Jordanian, was standing on the roof, preparing a live broadcast of the warfare in Baghdad, when the building was hit, a spokesman for the channel, Jihad Ballout, said at its headquarters in Doha, Qatar.

Mr. Ayoub was carried to a car by colleagues but died on the way to the hospital, Mr. Ballout said.

Abu Dhabi television said its offices, not far from Al Jazeera’s, were hit by small-arms fire.

In the Palestine, many journalists had taken up positions on balconies on the hotel’s northern side, on floors high enough to be able to have a clear view of the fighting going on. The two journalists killed, both of them television cameramen, were on balconies on the 14th and 15th floors, in rooms that were one above the other.

Taras Protsyuk, 35, a Ukrainian citizen who was working for Reuters, was pronounced dead at the hospital within an hour, and José Couso, 37, a Spaniard working for a Spanish channel, Telecinco, died in surgery.

Iraqi officials joined with reporters in carrying the injured journalists down to the hotel forecourt, some of them in bloodied bedsheets. The three other Reuters staff members, one of them Lebanese, one British and one Iraqi, were expected to recover.

Muted scenes of anger were visible among colleagues of the two cameramen killed by the American tank shell at the Palestine Hotel, and among friends of Mr. Ayoub, the Al Jazeera cameraman killed during the day.

The journalists at the Palestine organized a 20-minute candlelit vigil at the hotel after dark, and debated among themselves whether there was justification in grieving for three dead journalists in a city where dozens of Iraqi civilians — people who mostly had no choice about being in Baghdad, unlike the journalists, all of whom are volunteers for the wartime assignment — had been killed on the same day.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

IRAQI CAPITAL: Key Section of City Is Taken in a Street-by-Street Fight

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

Two Iraqi Ministries Are Afire After U.S. Warplanes Strike

April 8, 2003

By JOHN F. BURNS with JANE PERLEZ

BAGHDAD, April 8 — United States forces launched an air and artillery assault on central Baghdad this morning, targeting government buildings in the heart of the city. The Planning Ministry and the Information Ministry were on fire after low flying American planes attacked the center, and bursts of Howitzer fire sounded across the city.

Armored vehicles fired cannons and machine guns across the Sinak bridge at Iraqi forces on the eastern side. In a show of force that also symbolized American ease of movement, two Abrams tanks drove onto the central Jumhuriya bridge over the river Tigris and fired from their positions.

An A-10 Thunderbolt tank-busting plane that had apparently taken part in the assault crashed near the Baghdad airport. The pilot ejected and was safe, American military officials said.

On the southeast edge of Baghdad, in an area of low sand-colored houses, American marines encountered bursts of small arms fire at midmorning and one Marine was wounded in the leg.

At least three journalists were reported killed and several others injured during the fighting.

On Monday an Air Force bomber dropped four 2,000-pound bombs on a Baghdad neighborhood in an attempt to kill Saddam Hussein and his sons. Bush administration and military officials said that the attack came just 45 minutes after the C.I.A. passed on a tip to military planners that Mr. Hussein and other Iraqi leaders were meeting at a house in Mansur, an exclusive residential neighborhood where top leaders are known to assemble.

It was unclear whether anyone was killed or wounded in the bombardment, which American military officials said left a “huge smoking hole.”

President Bush said today that he did not know whether or not the Iraqi leader survived the attack.

“The only thing I know is that he is losing power,” the president said at a news conference in Ulster at the conclusion of a two-day meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. “The grip I used to describe that Saddam had around the throats of the Iraqi people are loosening. I can’t tell you if all ten fingers are off their throats, but finger-by-finger it’s coming off.”

Mr. Bush added: “We will not stop until they are free. Saddam Hussein will be gone. It might have been yesterday.”

In the hours just after dawn today, two Arab satellite television offices were hit in downtown Baghdad. Al Jazeera television said its base at a house not far from the Ministry of Information was hit by two air to surface missiles. An Al Jazeera reporter, Tariq Ayoub, was killed. Abu Dhabi television said its office, not far, from Al Jazeera was hit by small arms fire.

At least two other journalists were killed when the Palestine Hotel, where international journalists are working, was hit during a round of shelling by the Americans.

Reuters announced that one of its television cameramen — Taras Protsyuk, 35, a Ukrainian national based in Warsaw — died when the hotel room where he working was hit by a tank shell. At least three other employees of the news agency were wounded.

In Madrid, officials of the Telecino Spanish television station said today that one of their cameramen had died of injuries he sustained in the blast. The cameraman, Jose Couso, 37, lost a leg and suffered injuries to the jaw.

For a second day in a row, the defiant information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, appeared at a roadside news conference to tell reporters that the invaders were being defeated even though his own ministry was not secure enough for him to preside over.

The raging battles have left the Americans in firm control of an area encompassing the principal seats of governmental power.

American forces held an area stretching upwards of a mile and a half along the western bank of the Tigris River, and inland at least a mile deep. That area contains several presidential palaces and ministries, including the Information and Planning departments, the radio and television center, and the Al Rashid and Mansour hotels. The Americans also took at least one of the three bridges across the Tigris.

Today’s battle lasted six or seven hours and appeared to have involved American tanks and infantry moving north from the Republican palace that the Americans seized in a raid from the airport at dawn on Monday.

Overnight these forces battled through pitched blackness, without a moon and with the city’s electrical system shut down. Iraqi forces fought back from inside the palace and suicide bombers threw themselves against tanks.

The toll on Iraqis appeared to have been severe, and senior Iraqi officials at the Palestine Hotel were seen clutching each other with tears rolling down their faces, whether for concern about their personal safety or about the pounding being taken by Iraqi forces could not be known. That pounding includes a devastating assault Monday that targeted Saddam Hussein and his two sons at a large residential compound in the Mansour district.

[International aid agencies warned today that medical supplies in Baghdad were critically low and hospitals were overburdened with wounded.

[“They have reached the limit of their capacity,” Nada Doumani, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said in Geneva.

At the height of the battle in the presidential compound, Iraqi television devoted its broadcasts through this morning to old film of Mr. Hussein being greeted by an adoring crowd accompanied by choirs singing praises to him and his sons, routine fare for Baghdad TV, and thus no firm indicator of whether the leader had survived.

The TV went off the air in the late morning after American troops pushed out of the presidential compound and made their way up a boulevard about a thousand yards further north, to the area of the Information Ministry and broadcast center.

The battle heightened as American troops reached the point where the compound abuts the Al Jumhiriya bridge, one of three midtown bridges. Bursts of fire escaped from the muzzles of Abrams tanks, and Iraqi defenders fought back with machine gun and rocket fire. American A-10 Thunderbolts — the tank-buster aircraft nicknamed the Warthog — hovered in the dense black smoke above the battle, diving every few minutes and releasing bombs on Iraqi positions.

At about 8:45 a.m., three Abrams tanks moved onto the bridge and advanced about 500 yards toward the eastern bank, halting for three hours at the first bridge support. The tanks could be seen firing shells at Iraqi targets on the bank, including a 10-story building south of the bridge, from which rifle, rocket and machine gun fire had been directed at the tanks.

Resistance from the building appeared to subside after the Americans fired about a dozen shells. The tanks later turned their barrels across the river and to the south, in the direction of Iraqi targets a mile or more away.

At this point reporters in the Sheraton Hotel adjacent to the Palestine could see an intensive battle raging along Al Rashid military airfield about five miles away; that apparently was the point of the furthest advance of American marines, who crossed a tributary of the Tigris on Monday.

It was in the early afternoon when a shell evidently struck the Palestine Hotel, destroying a room on the 15th floor on the east side with a view to the battle that was raging across the river at the presidential compound.

The wounded were carried out of the hotel and taken by car to Iraqi hospital.

Gen. Buford Blount, commander of the United States Army Third Infantry Division, was quoted on the Reuters news agency shortly after the incident saying that an American tank had fired a single round at the hotel.

“The tank was receiving small arms fire and RPG fire from the hotel and engaged the target with one tank round,” the general said, referring to rocket-propelled grenades.

In the hours before the strike, Iraqi fighters had taken positions in buildings adjacent to the Palestine and Sheraton hotels to fire against the Americans.

The attack led to scenes of near panic inside the Palestine Hotel, with journalists rushing down darkened stairwells to the hotel forecourt, many in flak jackets and helmets.

Some senior Iraqi officials appeared to have abandoned the hotel where they took up residence during the first 20 days of the war in an apparent attempt to find safety for themselves in a building they assumed would be immune from bombing and ground fire. Journalists tempted to leave the immediate area were ordered to remain.

Despite the ferocious fighting, some elements of normal daily life continued. Taxis painted their regulation orange and white could be seen cruising for fares, and a horse-drawn dray moved slowly down the street behind the Palestine Hotel delivering water supplies to homes and businesses.

People could be seen clustering under building eaves, seeking protection from the battle, while others dashed across the street, glancing to the battles in the north. By lunchtime, as the battle subsided, government workers appeared to check through the neighborhood for damage.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

BAGHDAD: Capital Has Look of a Battlefield

April 8, 2004

By JOHN F. BURNS

AGHDAD, Iraq, Tuesday, April 8 — Gunfire erupted on the grounds of the Republican Palace early this morning, almost 24 hours after an American tank column entered the compound, which has been repeatedly bombed by allied planes since the war began. The explosions shook awake residents of a city that has now come to resemble a battlefield, with Iraqi special forces and militiamen taking up position on crucial streets and bridges.

Low flying aircraft bombed targets around the north end of the presidential compound and near the Planning Ministry. An enormous amount of gunfire — artillery, mortars and machine guns — thundered over the city in a ceaseless cacophony that began at first light.

The battle appeared to be for the area to the north of the site that American forces took on Monday.

There was fierce resistance by Iraqis whop were making attempts at a counterattack, with some of the fighting taking place inside the presidential compound itself.

The American units seemed to be making forays from the compound and taking control of areas farther around it and to the north, the heart of the Iraqi government area.

The Iraqis blocked three bridges across Tigris River from the eastern side with large concrete blocks and dump trucks, moving antiaircraft and artillery weapons on their side of the bridges. The area immediately around the Palestine Hotel was being used as firing positions, with the Iraqi forces apparently betting that they would receive no return fire because most foreign journalists still in the capital live there.

In the exchange the skies filled with the smoke of multiple rocket launchers, artillery and antiaircraft fire.

The battle for the center of government’s quarter of Baghdad followed a battle through the night in the heart of the presidential compound. American officers at the international airport said that the relentless fighting included waves of suicide bombers, and that 600 Iraqis had died inside the presidential compound alone.

A tank battle was under way at the north end of the presidential compound near the Jumhuriya Bridge on the west back of the river, extending a mile to the north. The white smoke of American tank fire responding to the Iraqi machine guns and rifles came within 600 yards of Information Ministry.

About 9:30, two M1A1 Abrams tanks moved eastward across the Jumhuriya Bridge at the north end of the presidential compound until they had a clear line of sight and then fired several rounds at Iraq positions at the foot of bridge. The move by the tanks, enveloped with white smoke from their volleys, appeared to be the sign that American forces intended to advance to a crowded residential neighborhood on the east bank of the river.

At the same time, an intensive tank and infantry battle continued behind the tanks and appeared to be centered on a struggle for control of an area that included the Information Ministry and the main radio and television headquarters.

A-10 Warthog tank-buster jets circled the sky above the battle, diving every now and then through the thick black smoke to drop ordnance, each bomb exploding with a burst of fire and black smoke. As the battle wore on, Iraqi resistance appeared to be diminishing.

Shortly after the mortar fire and other explosions around 4:50 a.m., a fire burned in the palace compound on the west bank of the Tigris. American troops and tanks from the Third Infantry Division had rumbled in there on Monday morning as more than 1,000 marines battled their way across the Diyala River in the southeast of the city. Dozens of Iraqi soldiers were killed Monday in the fighting.

At Al Kindi Hospital, officials said at least 75 civilians were brought in on Monday with various injuries.

Iraqi forces defending the city center from the east bank of the Tigris fired back at the Americans with artillery and rocket-propelled grenades, but as night fell on Monday, some American troops remained in the bombed palaces in the compound, the Iraqi equivalent of the White House, which once symbolized President Saddam Hussein’s absolute power.

At least nine people died, Iraqi officials said, in an attack that left a deep crater in the upscale Mansur neighborhood of the city.

In Washington, American officials said hours later that they had tried to kill Mr. Hussein in a strike on the same neighborhood. There was no indication here that Mr. Hussein or any member of his family had suffered.

In clear view across the river from the Palestine Hotel, two American Abrams tanks idled on the embankment Monday morning at the point where the sprawling palace grounds meet a bend in the Tigris.

A squad of American infantrymen in light brown camouflage uniforms, with flak jackets and combat rifles, scoured the cluster of date palms between the palaces and the water.

At one moment a group of about 20 Iraqi soldiers could be seen scurrying away from the tanks, up the riverbank to the north, only one of them carrying a rifle and several wearing nothing but boxer shorts.

Reaching a slipway guarded on their approach by a fence running down into the water, some of the men plunged into the river and began swimming upstream. The Americans opened fire, throwing cascades of water into the air but not, apparently, striking any of the men.

A minute or two later, huts along the sandspit near the Americans exploded into infernos, followed by the pop-pop of exploding munitions.

The scene seemed to illustrate the plight of Mr. Hussein’s government, whose army has mustered little effective resistance in the capital despite much oratory about the grim fate awaiting American soldiers. That official defiance continued despite the Americans’ increasingly incontrovertible presence.

On the eastern bank of the Tigris, a semblance of normality persisted. Cafes were still thronged with people and street vendors did their trade. But passage across the river was tightly controlled by militiamen.

Most of the city has been without electricity and water for a week. Working telephone lines are scarce. Long lines formed Monday outside the offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross as people waited to place international calls. Bus stations were full of people trying to leave, but buses were scarce.

As for the government, it showed no sign of wavering. Less than two hours after the American incursion began, the Iraqi information minister, Muhammad Said al-Sahhaf, was at the television networks’ “stand-up” positions on the second-story roof of the Palestine Hotel’s conference center, to insist that the reporters had not seen what they thought.

If reporters believed that they had witnessed an American drive deep into the heart of the capital, Mr. Sahhaf, in the green uniform and black beret of the ruling Baath Party, wished to disabuse them.

He implied that they, and American military commanders, were hallucinating about the tanks.

“They are really sick in their minds,” he said. “They said they entered with 65 tanks into the center of the capital. I inform you that this is too far from the reality. This story is part of their sickness. The real truth is that there was no entry of American or British troops into Baghdad at all.” The truth, he said, was that the Americans had pushed only a short distance out of the airport into a suburb where they had been surrounded by Iraqi troops, with “three-quarters of them slaughtered.”

American television images of soldiers surrounded by the marbled sumptuousness of Mr. Hussein’s palace, Mr. Sahhaf said, were shot in “the reception hall” of the airport. “They are just cheap liars!” he said.

To that, Mr. Sahhaf added a genial word of advice for reporters. “Just make sure to be accurate,” he said. “Don’t repeat their lies. Otherwise you will play a marketing role for the Americans.”

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

Sound of Guns Heralds Ground War in Baghdad

April 7, 2004

By JOHN F. BURNS

BAGHDAD, Iraq, April 6 — After being subjected to two weeks of relentless bombing that has destroyed many of the power centers of President Saddam Hussein’s government, the Iraqi capital found itself today deep into the ground battle that promises to be the decisive phase of America’s war to topple the Iraqi leader.

From the heart of the capital, a new cacophony of battle signaled the shift from a war fought primarily from the air to one where the outcome will depend increasingly on American ground troops.

The earth-shaking devastation of bombs and missiles was mostly stilled today, overtaken by the more distant sounds of artillery and rocket fire, by the staccato of machine-gun and rifle bursts, and by the scream of American jets flying what appeared to be low-level ground support missions.

Most of the fighting appeared to be concentrated away to the southwest of the city, in the area of what, until its capture by American troops on Friday, was Saddam International Airport.

Now symbolically stripped of the Iraqi leader’s name by the Americans, the airport has become a magnetic point on the personal compass of almost everybody in this city of 4.5 million people, whether the hard core of loyalists to Mr. Hussein or the increasingly venturous Iraqis, numerous if not yet demonstrably a majority, who have begun to shake off decades of fear and to whisper hauntingly that they wait anxiously for the end.

The government has up to now held to its official line, even since the capture of the airport three days ago: the Americans, the information minister has repeated with a cherubic air at daily news conferences, have fallen into the Iraqi trap by advancing to the gates of the city.

But for those listening for shifts, for the minor notes that rise even as the major ones pound out the familiar theme, there have been hints of a wavering certainty.

Today, the minister, Muhammad Said al-Sahhaf, was no longer contending, as he did on Saturday, that the Americans had been routed from the airport by an Iraqi counterattack, and divided into isolated pockets where they were surrendering en masse. Instead, he told a news conference, the Republican Guards were “tightening the noose around the U.S. enemy in the area surrounding the airport,” having killed 50 American soldiers and destroyed six American tanks.

That appeared to be a subtle but important shift, an acknowledgment that American forces really are close by and ready to fight. As for the citizens of Baghdad, the question being posed by many is this: when will American tanks and infantry try to storm the city, not as they did for a few hours early Saturday, but in earnest, with intent to seize the city’s heart, to haul down the Iraqi flag that still flutters atop the Republican Palace.

To Mr. Hussein’s die-hard supporters, the very notion that the Iraqi ruler’s days might be numbered remains unthinkable, or at least inadmissible. But today the information minister’s talk of the “scoundrels” and “villains” and “criminals” who have invaded Iraq was in a lesser key, subordinated to more pressing, more practical concerns. Iraqis, he said, should be on the lookout everywhere for the enemy, and “should not ignore” sightings of American units, or fail to report them to the Iraqi military.

From the official Iraqi standpoint, Mr. Sahhaf has made himself the media star of the war, if anybody other than Mr. Hussein would dare claim that distinction for himself.

A sort of Iraqi Donald H. Rumsfeld with the rhetorical flourishes of Soviet-era Moscow, he likes to muse on stage, developing his thrusts, amusing himself with his caustic wit at the Americans’ expense.

But he was in a distinctly more sober mood today. In a statement read on state television, he said Iraqis should not be prey to “rumors,” especially of a kind that suggested that American forces were gaining the upper hand.

The allies, he said, “might attempt to release rumors, believing that they can cause confusion, and tell lies, asserting that there is a landing here and there.”

At about the time that statement was being broadcast, Iraqis who had filled up at a Baghdad gas station were reporting that drivers arriving from points west and northwest of the city were telling of seeing American paratroopers descending from the sky alongside the access roads that American commanders, in Qatar, were saying they were seizing so as to tighten the encirclement of Baghdad. There was no way of knowing if those sightings were merely the work of the imaginations of the drivers.

Mr. Sahhaf had other words of advice, and warning. Iraqi fighters, he said, should refrain from firing their guns in Baghdad “for no reason,” as many appear to have done through the prolonged heavy bombing, conducted from an altitude that made the endless rattle of antiaircraft guns and automatic rifle seem more like a reaffirmation of vulnerability than an act of meaningful defense.

But if that sounded like an appeal for conserving ammunition, there was an intriguing, slightly menacing, counterpoint. With the enemy in Baghdad, he said, it was the duty now for “anybody who wants to do so to use his weapon,” and anybody who failed to do so would be considered “cursed.” Violators, he said, would not be treated leniently.

Later in the day, Mr. Hussein himself weighed in, in the form of a message to Iraqi fighters read on television. The smiling Iraqi leader was shown in his field marshal’s uniform presiding at a meeting with senior officials that was said to have taken place today.

In a film broadcast on Friday that showed Mr. Hussein, or a double, strolling about some of Baghdad’s western neighborhoods, the message was of a leader on top of his game, full of beaming, hand-slapping, climb-on-the-car-hood geniality.

But the statement read on his behalf today suggested an awareness that the Iraqi Army was not getting its job done. First, the statement said that anybody who destroyed an allied tank, armored personnel carrier or artillery gun would be awarded 15 million Iraqi dinars, about $5,000. Second, any Iraqi fighter losing touch with his unit during battle “let him join a unit of the same kind that he is able to join.”

To some Iraqis, that sounded like a warning against giving up when units are decimated by American firepower, as American commanders have reported Iraqi soldiers and paramilitaries doing in droves. Reporters traveling with American units pushing north to Baghdad have described roadsides littered with abandoned combat boots and uniforms, and large numbers of young men in civilian clothes waving white strips of cloth.

In the effort to show Iraqi defenses as holding, and even prevailing, the Information Ministry organized a press tour of a sole, burned-out American M1A1 Abrams tank that had been abandoned on an expressway during the probing reconnaissance that a unit of the Third Infantry Division conducted on Saturday.

The tank, presumably, was one of the six that Mr. Sahhaf claimed as trophies of Iraq’s counterattack on the American forces near the airport. An Iraqi officer, Brig. Muhammad Jassim, told reporters that the tank was one of five American tanks destroyed in the battle, the other four having been towed away by the Iraqis to make way for traffic.

The American account acknowledged the loss of one tank.

The Iraqis at the site of the abandoned tank gave another version, one that made the American probe not so much a tour de force as a debacle. Senior army officers joined with officials of the ruling Baath Party in clambering atop the tank and chanting devotions to Mr. Hussein.

“God is great, and to him we owe thanks,” someone had scribbled in Arabic on the blackened hulk. Soldiers were produced to describe the withering fire that had been trained on the Americans, and to affirm that all Iraqis were ready to die for their leader.

The lone tank hardly made the triumphal point Iraqi officials intended, especially when Western newsmen were conducted to the scene along a highway littered with the tangled, burned-out wreckage of at least 30 Iraqi tanks, armored carriers, army trucks, artillery guns and pick-up trucks of the kind favored by the Fedayeen Saddam.

What the tour also showed was that large areas of Baghdad are being turned into a military camp. Tanks, armored cars and artillery guns could be seen posted near bridges, in civilian neighborhoods and alongside the expressways, at places where no major defenses were visible only days ago. Soldiers and paramilitaries were visible digging bunkers. Some flashed victory signs at the Westerners as they drove by.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company