BAGHDAD, Iraq Before the air raid sirens started again, before hundreds of Tomahawk missiles left Baghdad shrouded in smoke and flames Friday, the Iraqi Air Force stood before a flag-waving crowd on a local soccer field.
Meanwhile locally, some area school children watched the action on television, people put up patriotic signs in Clayton and Henry counties and protesters took to the streets of Atlanta for a second day of protest. At Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport it was business as usual with people adjusting to small delays as safety checks were made.
Two missile attacks in the Iraqi capital on the first day of the war failed to eradicate the sense of normalcy present Friday. The Air Force played in one of two Baghdad soccer games, winning 1-0 against a team from the city of Najaf. Highlights were shown on local television; it was likely the most action for the Air Force since the war began two days ago.
Many shops and cafes remained open Friday afternoon, secure in the safety of sunlight. Only the presence of armed Baath Party activists and jeeps mounted with heavy machine guns cruising the streets served notice of the ongoing war.
By 9 p.m., an eerie silence had fallen upon the capital until it was shattered by a brief but ferocious U.S. missile assault. When the harshest attack of the war was over, three fires were raging inside Saddam Hussein's Old Palace compound and thick smoke enveloped the Iraqi capital.
The massive aerial assault, featuring 320 Tomahawk missiles launched from ships in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, filled the sky with towering fireballs. Hours after the blasts rocked the city and damaged two Iraqi palaces, fires were still burning and a halo of smoke hung in the sky.
The streets now were empty.
The attack was apparently coordinated to simultaneously strike against Baghdad and two other cities, Mosul and Kirkuk. The Iraqi defense minister, speaking as the missiles fell, said the coalition was also targeting the southern cities of Basra and Nassiriyah.
The air barrage came with U.S. ground troops already a third of the way to Baghdad, and with Saddam Hussein and his regime fighting to demonstrate their control of the country despite reports of surrendering Iraqi troops and the loss of strategic sites.
Baghdad was extraordinarily quiet before the heaviest attack yet the third in two days on the capital lit up the night sky, with missiles slamming into targets around the city. At one point, a half-dozen adjoining plumes of smoke twisted into the sky.
The spectacular blasts lit up the horizon, illuminating the city even as they devastated it. In response, the Iraqis opened up with anti-aircraft bursts that winked in the darkness. At one point, the sound of a missile roared through the street before exploding into a fireball.
The assault was heralded by the sound of air raid sirens and explosions in the city of 5 million.
Three major fires raged on Saddam Hussein's Old Palace compound, which stretches for 1.7 miles on the west bank of the Tigris River. The compound is the official center of the Iraqi state, and home to the offices of the prime minister's staff, the Cabinet and a Republican Guard camp.
Its turqoised-domed main building appeared untouched. But a building next to the palace was on fire, and black smoke billowed from a 10-story building in another part of the compound.
Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf said two palaces were attacked: the Peace Palace, used for foreign dignitaries, and the Azzouhour Palace, a museum once used by the royal family. Pointing to the damaged Peace Palace, al-Sahhaf ripped into U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
This criminal dog calls it a military site, the minister said.
Despite the apparent setbacks, the Saddam regime was taking a hard line denying military setbacks and verbally attacking its enemies in a show of public resolve.
Asked Friday night about an Iraqi counterattack, al-Sahhaf replied, Our leadership and our armed forces will decide this, in what guarantees the defeat of those mercenaries, God willing. Speaking of Rumsfeld and President Bush, he declared, Those only deserve to be hit with shoes.
The bravado stands in contrast with U.S. claims that Saddam's control was in danger of crumbling.
In Baghdad, bravado was scarce. Radio Baghdad was knocked off the air, and the streets were deserted after the missile attacks. Multiple fires were burning in the ordinarily bustling city of 5 million.
In Washington, a senior U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity said Friday's bombardment might not be as intense as originally planned because surrender talks were continuing with senior Iraqi officials. The official said if the negotiations faltered in the coming hours, the bombing would go full-throttle.
Earlier, aboard the USS Kitty Hawk, scores of bombs were readied to fire and stored in racks in the ship's cavernous hanger bay. Ordnance crews worked steadily through the day attaching global positioning system and laser guidance kits to 500-pound, 1,000-pound and 2,000-pound bombs and moving the ordnance from the ship's 22 weapons magazine to holding bays.
Dozens of F-14 Tomcats and F/A-18 Hornet strike planes loaded with bombs roared off the Kitty Hawk's deck before nightfall Friday.
Al-Sahhaf acknowledged Friday that one of Saddam's homes was hit in an earlier U.S. bombardment, but said no one was hurt. The Iraqi News Agency said 37 people were injured in Thursday night's Baghdad raid.
Al-Sahhaf also denied any U.S.-led advance into Iraq and argued that TV images of Iraqis surrendering were fabricated. Those are not Iraqi soldiers at all, he insisted.
And he suggested that any captured U.S. and British soldiers may not be treated as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions. Al-Sahhaf said Iraq was considering how to treat them.
Those are mercenaries, he said. Most probably they will be treated as mercenaries, hirelings and as war criminals. ... For sure, international law does not apply to those.