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Out There News

Baghdad's defences crumble

Baghdad's defenders crumble

By Paul Eedle in Baghdad, FT.com site
Published: Apr 07, 2003

US armoured units blasted their way into the centre of Baghdad on Monday and seized Saddam Hussein's main presidential compound on the west bank of the Tigris. Battles raged late into the night in inner suburbs of the city north and west of the compound.

The assault began in the grey light of dawn. Artillery and bomb explosions thundered across the city and planes roared overhead. Television cameramen and photographers in the Palestine hotel, a mile away on the other side of the river, captured images of soldiers running away from positions by the waterside, some in their underwear.

Minutes later, four Bradley armoured fighting vehicles advanced along an embankment, firing down into Iraqi dugouts in the sandy bank of the river. A line of half a dozen US soldiers moved forward in the cover of each vehicle. One Bradley blasted a fuel tank buried in the sand and it erupted in flame and oily smoke. Another shot into an ammunition dump which smouldered and then exploded and crackled for an hour.

Some Iraqis fought back fiercely, firing rocket propelled grenades and automatic weapons which had no effect on the Bradleys' armour. One soldier hid behind a lamp post, then crept up on one of the vehicles and lobbed a grenade at the US troops beside it. But the grenade exploded short.

Channel 4 News cameraman Tim Lambon caught pictures of two Iraqis apparently surrendering, walking towards one of the US vehicles with their hands up. American soldiers swung round with their rifles and the men stretched out flat on their faces on the ground. But then one of the men rolled over and raised his arm; two shots rang out and his body convulsed. He was later left for dead by a US army paramedic.

Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf told journalists on the roof of the journalists' hotel that the Americans controlled no part of Baghdad. "I want it to be recorded that I said this: they have begun to commit suicide on the walls of Baghdad," he declared. "God will barbecue their bellies in hell." If there hadn't been a sandstorm, American vehicles would have been visible over his shoulder.

Mr Sahaf sent the journalists in three buses to prove the Americans had not advanced to the Information Ministry and the Rasheed hotel, north of the presidential compound. We drove through silent streets past knots of soldiers with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades and found the Information Ministry under Iraqi control; but fighters in civilian clothes turned us back before we could reach the Rasheed.

By late afternoon, journalists found the battle had moved beyond the Rasheed hotel to Mansour, the smart suburb in west Baghdad where many government officials live and where Saddam Hussein spent the 1991 Gulf War in a modest villa. Residents swapped rumours that Mr Hussein was on the streets rallying his fighters. "He will fight," one said. "He might die on the battlefield. But he will not run away, and he will not surrender to the Americans."

But in the presidential compound, the battle was over. US soldiers relaxed by their vehicles, offering each other food. Across the river, groups of curious men and boys crowded the railings overlooking the river, staring at half a dozen young men swimming across the Tigris to rescue an injured soldier on the other side. The Americans paid no notice.

Driving around streets east of the river just before dusk, it was clear that many of the fighters who had been manning sandbagged emplacements on street corners and outside shops had abandoned their positions. It was not clear whether they had gone to join the battles elsewhere in the city, or had just melted away.

Soldiers with anti-tank weapons were still dug in at a big roundabout at the base of a bridge leading south across the Tigris, but elsewhere only a few knots of fighters remained, and most of them seemed to be middle-aged and elderly men. Most of the people on the streets were civilians, including many women and children, sitting on the steps of small apartment blocks or standing around the few vegetable stalls and bakeries that were open.

People gave an impression of suppressed excitement, sensing that change was near but knowing it was still too dangerous to speak out. A man selling vegetables asked my nationality, and when I said, 'British', he stuck up his thumb and beamed. But when I asked him what he'd heard of the fighting and he started to reply, his friend whispered: "Don't talk to him. Shut up!"