Thunderous explosions rocked Baghdad on Friday and a towering column of churning orange smoke rose over the skyline after a break in the weather opened the way for the mightiest bombardment of the Iraqi capital in days. Iraqi officials said at least seven persons had been killed in overnight strikes.
US warplanes and sea-launched Tomahawk missiles pounded the city in a barrage that included some of the most fearsome weapons in the coalition arsenal: two 4,700-pound (2,115-kilogram), satellite-guided "bunker-busting" bombs, dropped by a B-2 stealth bomber on a major communications tower on the Tigris River in downtown Baghdad.
The bombing, which started shortly after 11 p.m. on Thursday, was aimed at disrupting communications between Saddam Hussein's leadership and his military, US officials said. Air strikes also targeted positions of the Republican Guard -- Saddam's best-trained, best-equipped fighters -- in a ring outside the city. The attack gutted a seven-story telephone exchange building in an area called Al-Alwya, leaving the street strewn with slabs of concrete, irons rods and corrugated metal.
Baghdad rocked and furious
Husein Moeini, telecommunications director of Baghdad, said he believed people were buried beneath the rubble, but journalists who arrived at the scene less than three hours after it was hit did not see a rescue operation under way.
At a second telephone exchange, Al-Rasheed, the 10-story building was largely intact, except for some broken windows. Next to it, however, was a huge crater in the road where Iraqi officials said a missile apparently lodged without exploding.
Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed al Sahhaf said the overnight air strikes had killed seven persons in Baghdad and wounded 92. The air strikes hit at or near the Information and Planning ministries and at telephone installations -- "as if government buildings are empty of human beings and there are no civilians in them," Sahhaf said.
He said that the death toll from Thursday's attacks in Iraq, including a stray missile blast on a Baghdad market, had reached 95 with another 290 injured.
Sahhaf denounced speculation that the Iraqi forces would use chemical weapons. Advancing forces recently found chemical weapons suits and gas masks left behind by soldiers in retreat. He said having such equipment is standard procedure for any army. Muslim cleric Abdel-Ghafour Al-Quisi, with a Kalashnikov rifle resting against the pulpit, delivered a sermon broadcast on state TV on Friday, denouncing the US-led attack.
"May God install terror in the hearts of our enemies, and set against them invisible soldiers," he said at one of Baghdad's largest mosques, in the heart of the city.
"Their dead are in hell because they have launched aggression against a Muslim nation," he said, referring to felled coalition soldiers.
A crowd of worshippers interrupted his sermon with shouts of: "God is great!"
The people of Baghdad knew a punishing attack was coming after a two-day sandstorm that had grounded many coalition warplanes gave way to blue skies on Thursday.
Powerful explosions continued through the night and after the sun rose, with aircraft swooping low over the city. Anti-aircraft fire was intermittent.
On Friday, gray smoke drifted across the capital from the bombings and from fires started by authorities to conceal targets. Police and ambulance sirens wailed.
Baghdad won't be a cakewalk
Hours before the bombardment, Iraq's defense minister insisted the real battle for Baghdad will be a drawn-out fight in the streets of the city of 5 million.
"The enemy must come inside Baghdad, and that will be its grave," Sultan Hashim Ahmed said. "We feel that this war must be prolonged so the enemy pays a high price."
US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, however, suggested American troops might lay siege to Baghdad rather than invade, in hopes its citizens will rise up against the government. During the night's bombardment, aircraft and Tomahawk missiles "took out communications and command and control facilities in the capital city," said Lt. Cmdr. Charles Owens, a spokesman at the command center in Qatar.
Iraq's satellite television channel was cutting in and out after the air strikes. The US forces had hoped to knock out Saddam's propaganda outlets.
Telephones were working in many parts of the city on Friday morning. Also targeted was a building inside the Old Palace presidential compound on the west bank of the Tigris, which includes a camp of the Republican Guard attacked last week.
Witnesses said an unknown number of people were killed and injured in an attack on a housing complex for employees of a weapons-producing facility.
In northern Iraq, the Mosul area was also targeting by strikes on Thursday night.
Iraqi state television reported that Saddam chaired a meeting of the ruling Baath Party, his top aides and his son, Qusai. No video was shown.
Silent video was shown of another meeting of Saddam, Qusai and other party officials.