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Iraqi Air Force Headquarters Bombed

Iraqi Air Force Headquarters Bombed

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- Coalition forces bombed Iraqi Air Force headquarters in central Baghdad Friday morning, one of many air assaults on the capital as U.S. ground troops pressed closer from the south.

Blasts before dawn from the south and southwest shook buildings in the heart of the capital, and explosions grew louder and more frequent as day broke. Al-Jazeera television reported presidential palaces had been hit.

Using satellite-guided bombs, allied troops hit buildings of Air Force headquarters west of the Tigris River at about 9:45 a.m., U.S. Central Command said in a statement. The strike hurt Iraqi ability to control its air assets, the statement said, though complete damage was not yet clear.

The attacks came after the first widespread power outage of the war plunged Baghdad into darkness Thursday night. Bombs rocked the city before the blackout, but U.S. military officials said they had not targeted Baghdad's power grid. The reason for the outage was not known.

Explosions rang out for nearly 15 minutes before the lights went out in large parts of Baghdad, and soon it appeared the entire city had lost electricity. Less than an hour after the outage began, virtually the only sound that could be heard in the city was the noise of power generators.

A sustained power outage to the city of 5 million people would mean the disruption of water supply and sewage, which could spread disease at a time when temperatures are rising.

The electricity went out as U.S. forces launched their attack on Saddam International Airport, 10 miles southwest of the city center. Anti-aircraft fire could be heard near the airport, tracer rounds raced through the sky and artillery shells exploded in the air.

By Friday morning, the 3rd Division occupied part of the airport and had sealed the entrance closest to Baghdad. Gunshots were heard from inside, however, and it was unclear how many Iraqi troops remained there.

On 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. Saddam hasn't delivered a speech on TV since March 24, and it is unclear when that address was recorded.

No trace of Saddam or his sons turned up Thursday when special operations forces raided a presidential palace northwest of the capital.

Iraqi Trade Minister Mohammed Mehdi Saleh -- who accused coalition forces of breaking into Iraqi warehouses and stealing children's milk and supplies -- laughed when he was asked where Saddam was.

"I think you have seen his picture," Saleh said, referring to silent footage that aired Wednesday of a smiling Saddam chairing a Cabinet meeting. "He is very calm, confident."

Iraqi TV aired similar clips Thursday, showing a relaxed and laughing Saddam in an olive green military uniform and meeting with more than a dozen senior government and Baath Party officials, including Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan. It was not possible to verify when the footage was shot.

"We would have liked to protect the Iraqi people from evil," the report quoted Saddam as saying, "but the nation and the people are facing danger and we must fight and be steadfast until we defeat the enemy and achieve victory.

"We must chose the means and methods that tear off the ranks of the enemy and give him no chance to take his breath."

Iraqi officials took reporters to the airport Thursday afternoon before the U.S. attack. It was deserted, except for employees and armed guards. Three Iraqi Airways planes sat on the tarmac. The departure lounge was covered with a yellow coat of dust, left over from last week's two-day sandstorm.

On the nine-mile road to the airport from central Baghdad, a six-story purple-hued building thought to belong to one of Iraq's security agencies was severely damaged. A complex of low buildings along the road was wrecked. It was not clear who had occupied those buildings.

The airport has seen severely limited use since the 1991 Gulf War and the subsequent no-fly zones in the north and the south enforced by the United States and Britain.

Charter flights bringing in food and medicine bought under the U.N. sanctioned oil-for-food program have landed sporadically, and domestic flights have operated only for limited periods.

The airport has joint military-civilian terminals. The civilian international runway is 13,000 feet long, according to intelligence monitoring organizations. The second runway, on the military side of the airfield, measures 8,800 feet.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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