BAGHDAD —HUGE explosions boomed out and thick smoke covered the sky over Saddam Hussein’s main presidential palace yesterday as US forces launched a raid into the sprawling compound in the heart of Baghdad. Reporters saw 10 US marines in full combat gear inside the Republican Palace on the banks of the Tigris, which has been pounded repeatedly since the US-led coalition launched the war 19 days ago. US troops were met with fierce resistance at the compound where dozens of Iraqi elite troops wearing black were seen running along a bank and entering one of the main buildings.
Amid heavy exchanges of mortar and rocket-propelled grenade fire, clouds of smoke covered the 2.5 sq-kilometre (one sq-mile) palace, which houses Saddam’s personal office and an underground bunker designed to withstand nuclear attack. US troops claimed to have seized the complex, a symbol of Saddam’s power and glory, as well as two other palaces around Baghdad. Two Bradley fighting vehicles and two Abrams tanks were seen at the entrance to the Republican Palace.At midday, there was no sign of the US forces seen at the start of the assault on the compound.
Warplanes roared low over the Iraqi capital during the afternoon. Iraqi anti-aircraft defences from within the Republican Palace compound opened fire despite minimal visibility due to the smoke and dust covering the city.
Correspondents reported seeing and hearing continued explosions from inside the compound. It was not clear whether they came from an arms depot that caught fire during the morning raid. But Iraq insisted it was still in control, with Information Minister Mohammed Said al-Sahhaf assuring reporters the invaders would be “massacred”.
“They pushed forward some troop transporters and tanks, we have surrounded them with our troops,” Sahhaf said. “We will massacre them, these invaders. Their graves will be here.”
Lieutenant Colonel Peter Bayer, operations officer for the US army’s 3rd Infantry Division, said US troops had “secured the main presidential palace” and another palace in the city centre as well as a third near the airport.
He said they were captured by the division’s Second Brigade which sent two tank battalions and a mechanized infantry battalion, totalling some 65 tanks and 40 Bradley fighting vehicles, into the city.
Heavy explosions had begun under the grey skies from around 6:15 am (0215 GMT), apparently from artillery fire to the capital’s west - site of the international airport which was seized by US troops Friday. AFP correspondents said the administrative district around the palace, including the ministries of information and foreign affairs, were still in Iraqi hands in the afternoon. The roads leading up to the presidential palace and key ministries were guarded by nervous-looking militiamen armed with rocket launchers and Kalashnikov assault rifles.
Clusters of men in both military fatigues and civilian clothing, ammunition strapped across their chests, stationed themselves behind sandbags, walls and trees along the roads, as military jeeps on street corners kept their mounted anti-aircraft guns pointed horizontally. The western Al-Karkh bank of the Tigris -- home to Saddam’s presidential compound and government ministries -- was deserted except for a crowd of hundreds of civilians at the gate of Al-Alawi bus station. “All these people came here because they wanted to leave town, but there are no buses,” said a doctor from Al-Rashid military hospital trying to travel to his home in Al-Faluja, 30 kilometres (20 miles) west of Baghdad. The civilians tried to flag down the odd passing private car in the hope of hitching a ride home or out of the besieged city. “I didn’t know there was an attack. I was caught up in the battle,” said the doctor, explaining he had just come off a night shift. “Eighty percent of the hospital beds are taken by people suffering from war injuries,” he said.
On the eastern Al-Rusafa bank of the Tigris, traffic was also slow but small neighborhood cafes were still full of people, grocers’ stores open, fruit stalls erected and street vendors hawking cigarettes stood on main roundabouts. Civilians trying to drive on Al-Jumhuriya bridge over the Tigris, close to the palace compound, were stopped by armed militiamen who did, however, allow military vehicles to cross.