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Iraqi official defiant as bombs fall on Baghdad

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 28, 2003

An Iraqi official said Thursday that the real battle will be in Baghdad; soon, more explosions rattled the capital. Meanwhile, evidence emerged about Wednesday's explosions in a residential area, and the gateway port for aid was declared secured.

Baghdad: Blasts, blame

Iraq's defense minister said Thursday that the real battle for Baghdad will be on its streets, making his remarks just before the most powerful blasts in days rattled the capital and destroyed communications and command facilities.

"The enemy must come inside Baghdad, and that will be its grave," Defense Minister Sultan Hashem Ahmed said. "We feel that this war must be prolonged so the enemy pays a high price."

At a news conference in a Baghdad hotel, Ahmed warned that U.S.-led forces would have to fight for the city street by street.

Hours later -- shortly after 11 p.m. -- the air assault delivered one of the strongest blasts felt in the city in days as allied forces zeroed in on one of Saddam Hussein's presidential compounds in the heart of Baghdad.

Another round of powerful explosions began at 2:30 this morning and went on for a half-hour, with aircraft heard flying overhead and bursts of antiaircraft fire. The Palestine Hotel, where many reporters are staying, shook violently during the blasts.

Iraq's satellite television channel was cutting in and out after the airstrike. The U.S. forces had hoped to knock out Iraqi television and radio to disable Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's propaganda outlets.

The night's precision bombing strike targeted a building inside the Old Palace complex -- a presidential compound hit in earlier attacks. The compound, on the west bank of the Tigris River, includes a camp of the Republican Guard which was also targeted last week.

One huge blast sent flames and dense, orange smoke into the sky. In addition to the attack in the center of the city, other very strong explosions were heard southwest of Baghdad.

Hours earlier, loud explosions were heard in and around Baghdad, with witnesses saying an unknown number of people were killed and injured in an attack on a housing complex for employees of a weapons-producing facility.

WEDNESDAY BOMBING: In Qatar, U.S. officials, who had appeared on the verge of acknowledging responsibility for the fatal bombing of a residential and market area in Baghdad on Wednesday, changed course Thursday and said the Iraqi military probably bombed the area, perhaps deliberately.

Iraqi officials blamed U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles and said at least 14 people were killed and 20 others were injured.

On Thursday, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks told reporters that although the United States had attacked targets at the time the market was hit, it had not aimed at anything in that area.

He said it is possible that an uncontrolled Iraqi antiaircraft missile fell back to earth, causing the damage, or that the Iraqi military bombed its own civilians on purpose in order to blame the carnage on U.S.-led forces.

U.S. officials have discovered that the Iraqis are using "very old stocks" of missiles, Brooks said.

"And those stocks are not reliable, and missiles are going up and coming down," he said. "So we think it's entirely possible that this may have been, in fact, an Iraqi missile that either went up and came down or, given the behaviors of the regime lately, it may have been a deliberate attack inside of town."

Two Western eyewitnesses arriving at the scene about 90 minutes after Wednesday morning's airstrikes told Cox Newspapers that they saw a green Scud missile launcher parked on a side street some 330 to 650 yards from the area of the two blasts. The pair spoke on condition of anonymity, out of fear for their safety.

It was not known exactly where the launcher was at the time of the attack, but its presence is a plausible reason the neighborhood may have been a target for U.S. strikes, or could lend credence to U.S. claims that the explosion was a result of a misfiring Iraqi missile.

Umm Qasr: Port secured

After a week of around-the- clock searches for snipers' nests and mine caches, Naval Special Warfare forces declared Thursday that they had secured the waterways surrounding Iraq's lone deep-sea port at Umm Qasr, paving the way for a British cargo ship to deliver aid as early as today.

But Navy officials cautioned that they might still have to clear a few more mines in the area before the ship, the Sir Galahad -- which is moored in the Persian Gulf -- could deliver its cargo of food and other supplies.

The British hope to open 12 aid distribution centers in southern Iraq once the ship unloads its cargo at the sprawling container port.

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