The bursts of light illuminated Baghdad's southern horizon, the thunder reverberating in the distance. Then, with method and fury, waves of explosions rolled across the heart of the Iraqi capital tonight, shattering the garrisons of President Saddam Hussein's three-decade rule and sending flames and black plumes of smoke into the sky.
In a three-hour blitz that at times brought a new blast every 10 seconds, U.S. forces devastated many of the symbols of Hussein's government: a presidential palace, the headquarters for Special Security, offices of the Republican Guard and a military barracks.
The detonations shook buildings and cracked windows miles from the epicenter of the attacks, and smoke smothered the city in an acrid haze. Soon after the strike began, sirens of emergency vehicles wailed through the deserted, but still-lit streets, although there were no immediate reports on the number of casualties. Iraqi radio was knocked off the air temporarily.
The assault was by far the most intense since the conflict began Thursday. After two previous airstrikes, which both lasted less than an hour, residents had left their barricaded homes stockpiled with food and gingerly returned to the streets today. But tonight's attack, beginning shortly after 8 p.m. and lasting late into the night, was more powerful and wider in scope. The capital promptly became a fragile and vacant shell.
One of the main targets was the Republican Palace complex, which stretches along the west bank of the Tigris River. A domed palace sits at the center of the sprawling complex, built in the 1950s, that houses apartments for some of Hussein's loyalists and camps for the Republican Guard, the elite force in Iraq's military.
Missile strikes left at least two buildings in the complex burning, although not the palace itself. At least five missiles struck the nearby headquarters of Special Security, a fearsome domestic intelligence agency housed in a pyramid-shaped building. Even after the attack, the palace complex remained brightly lit, a lamp casting a ghostly brightness through billowing white smoke.
The Republican Guard's headquarters was also struck, as was the Rashid Barracks, a military camp on Baghdad's southern outskirts where both Republican Guard and regular army units are stationed, witnesses reported.
Under a full moon, the fires burned for hours, and clouds of smoke drifted over downtown Baghdad.
Air raid sirens sounded at about 8:09 p.m., but the first strikes were visible only as dozens of flashes in the distance. Less than an hour later, the full brunt of the attack struck the heart of Baghdad. For 20 minutes, explosions went off every few seconds. A lull followed, then another round of attacks. That pattern continued until about 11 p.m.
The strikes appeared to target military installations and symbols of Hussein's rule. Electricity remained on in Baghdad throughout the evening, suggesting that the capital's fragile and precarious civilian infrastructure had not been targeted.
Despite the attack and U.S. advances elsewhere in Iraq, the government maintained a confident face and kept control of the capital.
Official statements insisted victory was imminent, even as signs of a military defeat grew. In what is becoming a trademark refrain, Information Minister Mohammed Saeed Sahhaf heaped insults on the Bush administration.
"You consider them superpowers. Well, this is a disgrace, a complete disgrace. They are a superpower of villains," he said, dressed in a green khaki uniform and a black beret. "Al Capone is the typical official of America in these days."
He denied that Iraq had lost any territory today to U.S. forces and insisted that the government retained control of the southern port of Umm Qasr. He suggested U.S. disinformation was behind reports of the surrender of Iraqi soldiers in the south.
"We are experienced. We know them very well," Sahhaf told reporters. "We know their tricks, their tactics. We know everything about them." Asked whether the government was becoming disheartened, he answered: "Our morale is in us, in our resilience, in our good understanding of the situation, in our deep belief that we are the just side and they are villains."
On the second day of war, scenes in the capital ranged from the wrenching to the theatrical. Sahhaf was joined at his news conference by Interior Minister Mahmoud Diab Ahmed. Ahmed wore a flak jacket, to which he had strapped a hunting knife and four ammunition clips, and carried a pistol on his side. To the delight of photographers, he swung his AK-47 above his head with his finger on the trigger.
"Some of you might wonder why I have a Kalashnikov in my hand and why I'm wearing a flak jacket. We have all in Iraq pledged never to drop our weapon, to relinquish our weapon, until the day of victory," he said.
He shouted: "Victory is definite, definite, definite!"
The mood was far different in the streets of the city of more than 5 million, where residents enjoyed a precarious period of calm in the morning before the evening's terrifying fusillade. In contrast to previous days in which Baghdad was shadowed by an unsettled calm, signs of vibrancy returned in the daylight hours, and residents seemed emboldened that the airstrikes Thursday appeared to be restrained in comparison with what many here had expected.
"Before the war, the Americans said they were going to hit every day with 4,000 missiles, every day, 24 hours a day," said Raid Abdel-Rahman. "The people went home and sat there hiding. But what happened is the opposite. Thank God, praise be to God."
Today, he said he woke up on a lazy morning, took his lumbering 1988 Cadillac Eldorado for an oil change and wandered through the Shurja market, picking up eight chickens along the way. By afternoon, he declared his work done, and plopped himself down at Sa'ee Restaurant for tea and cigarettes with his friend, Ahmed Omar.
Abdel-Rahman looked out on traffic that glided down Palestine Street, which was deserted a day before. He glanced at customers casually eating chicken shawarma sandwiches. And he pointed out stores that had tentatively begun to reopen their doors, providing a crack, however slight, in the somber veneer of the ghost town that Baghdad had become earlier this week.
"It was very bad, very tense three days ago. The prices went up, the dinar lost value, food became expensive and there was a shortage," Abdel-Rahman said. "Before the strike, I was worried about Iraq. I didn't sleep, but now I feel comfortable again."
Down nearby Ruba'i Street, a family strolled leisurely, savoring a cool, sunny day. Children played soccer in a dirt field, just feet from a row of pickups equipped with antiaircraft guns in southern Baghdad. Despite the Friday holiday for Muslims, traffic was heavier than the two days before, from dawn until a few hours before the nighttime attack. The ranks of militiamen who took control of neighborhoods and many intersections Wednesday had thinned, perhaps because many had returned to their families to mark the Muslim sabbath.
In New Baghdad, a poor neighborhood to the south, television sets, kerosene lamps and small stoves spilled out into the sidewalk from stores that removed iron gates hastily put up to stop looting. Markets teemed with shoppers buying cucumbers, beans, eggs, squash and bags of rice. Men sat at cafes, drinking lemon tea and playing backgammon on battered boards.
Potatoes, a staple in wartime Baghdad given their long shelf life, dropped in price -- from about 30 cents to 20 cents for slightly more than two pounds.
Some still feared the worst was yet to come, and scenarios of cataclysm were still turned out regularly. But others noted -- in private, for fear of uttering anything with a hint of subversion in Baghdad's tense atmosphere -- that U.S. forces had so far proved far more careful in choosing targets than in 1991, when bridges, power stations and ministries joined the list of military objectives.
While Baghdad residents shared their political views much more openly with strangers today than they had in years, reading the public mood remains difficult. Rumors often pass as news in Baghdad, and with war underway, Iraqi media have shifted almost entirely to programming nationalist songs dedicated to Hussein, patriotic poems, religious exhortations and appeals to Iraqi nationalism. But beneath the bluster, deeper anxiety seems to prevail.
U.S. officials have declared that the liberation of Iraq is at hand, but few residents in Baghdad, even in private moments, have framed the conflict in those terms. Anxieties over possible destruction resulting from a sustained U.S. air attack were mixed with worries about looting and lawlessness that could follow the government's collapse.
"This war was imposed on us," said Affaf al-Naimi, carrying yogurt out of a store in the wealthy neighborhood of Palestine. "Liberate us by bombs? The bombs are going to liberate us? We didn't ask them to liberate us. We sat in our houses relaxed, we were safe, we entertained ourselves. We don't need someone to come here to be our godfather."
The intense, submerged anxiety came to the surface in the voices of Abdel-Rahman and his friend Omar.
Seated at a restaurant, they at first predicted a quick Iraqi victory, and insisted that Baghdad's calm would prevail. But they later acknowledged deeper fears about the uncertainties that awaited. There were "100 ways to solve this, not by war," Abdel-Rahman said.
If chaos ensues, Abdel-Rahman said, he would take his family to Diyala, the neighboring province to the east. If the Americans attempt to take Baghdad by force, they would meet bloody resistance, the men agreed. They seemed to speak sincerely, with foreboding.
"Half of Baghdad would have to die to occupy it," Abdel-Rahman said. "How can they kill half of Baghdad?"
He turned to a visitor with a look of seriousness: "You should get out of here and escape."