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Iraq

Capital abides as darkness falls

In some ways, amid the rubble it's an ordinary day, with traffic tickets and patriotic music. And then the lights go out.

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2003


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- For one motorcycle patrolman here Thursday, it seemed to matter little that columns of American troops were as close as the airport, or that the drivers still on the roads might have reasons to hasten in a city under heavy bombing, or even that the government whose laws he enforces might not be quite so solid as its ceaseless announcements of battlefield triumphs have implied.

Idling on the embankment beside the Tigris River on a spring day, the leather-jacketed patrolman spotted a car careening though a red light, and gave chase.

Across the river, in plain view not 1,000 yards away, lay Saddam Hussein's principal palace complex, and within it the burned-out, blackened ruins of the old seats of power. Above, through much of the day, were the vapor trails of American bombers. Some were visible through field glasses as B-52s that arrowed in needle straight from the northwest.

Untroubled by antiaircraft fire, they curved southward toward the front lines where American troops were pushing through the battered lines of the Republican Guard, or banked to the east to home in on targets in the heart of Baghdad.

The news Thursday morning that American troops were nearing Saddam International Airport, 10 miles from the city center to the southwest, and had taken control of the highway leading west to Jordan at Abu Ghraib, 15 miles from the capital's heart, caused many families who had sat out the bombing to pack hurriedly and leave the city, many to the north where there has been no massed American advance, others to the east toward Iran, some even southward toward the American front lines.

The news that the invaders were close had convinced most of the people of Baghdad that it would be prudent to stay indoors Thursday, and many more shops were shuttered and barricaded than in recent days.

Earlier Thursday, a televised statement attributed to Saddam Hussein exhorted the Iraqi people to "fight them with your hands."

The statement was read by Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf. Hussein hasn't delivered a speech on TV since March 24, and it is unclear when that address was recorded.

Lights were snuffed out abruptly, shortly after 8 p.m. Thursday, when Baghdad's electricity flickered and died for the first time since the war began 15 days earlier. The blackout had followed a series of distant explosions, but U.S. military officials said they had not targeted Baghdad's power grid.

Iraqis who remembered the first Persian Gulf War 12 years ago said the outage was likely a government decision to try to make the city invisible from the air.

Neither Iraqi radio nor television mentioned the outage, continuing almost blanket programming of patriotic music, nationalist speeches and odes to Hussein.

But Baghdadis responded to the darkness with foreboding. The streets emptied within minutes, and the quiet of the capital was interrupted only by a series of strong explosions near the city center, the sound of artillery from the southern suburbs, and the drone of generators that turned wealthy neighborhoods and some hotels into isolated beacons of light.

As Baghdad fell quiet later, uniformed men set up roadblocks in the Karada neighborhood, a sight not seen inside the city previously.

Before dawn today, big explosions resumed, coming from the south and southwest of Baghdad and shaking buildings. Al-Jazeera television reported presidential palaces had been hit. Explosions grew louder and more frequent as day broke over the Iraqi capital.

-- Information from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and Associated Press was used in this report.

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