Fierce battle near presidential palace

Iraqi forces attempt counterattack against American units

War In Iraq

April 08, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Gunfire erupted on the grounds of the Republican Palace early today, almost 24 hours after an American tank column entered the compound, which has been repeatedly bombed by allied planes since the war began.

The explosions shook awake residents of a city that has now come to resemble a battlefield, with Iraqi special forces and militiamen taking up position on crucial streets and bridges.

Low-flying aircraft bombed targets around the north end of the presidential compound and near the Planning Ministry. An enormous amount of gunfire - artillery, mortars and machine guns - thundered over the city in a ceaseless cacophony that began at first light.

The battle appeared to be for the area to the north of the site that U.S. forces took yesterday.

There was fierce resistance by Iraqis who were making attempts at a counterattack, with some of the fighting taking place inside the presidential compound itself.

The American units seemed to be making forays from the compound and taking control of areas farther around it and to the north, the heart of the Iraqi government area.

The Iraqis blocked three bridges across the Tigris River from the eastern side with large concrete blocks and dump trucks, moving antiaircraft and artillery weapons on their side of the bridges. The area immediately around the Palestine Hotel was being used as firing positions, with the Iraqi forces apparently betting that they would receive no return fire because most foreign journalists still in the capital live there.

In the exchange the skies filled with the smoke of multiple rocket launchers, artillery and antiaircraft fire.

Battle all night

The battle for the center of government's quarter of Baghdad followed a battle through the night in the heart of the presidential compound. American officers at the international airport said that the relentless fighting included waves of suicide bombers, and that 600 Iraqis had died inside the presidential compound alone.

A tank battle was under way at the north end of the presidential compound near the Jumhuriya Bridge on the west back of the river, extending a mile to the north. The white smoke of American tank fire responding to the Iraqi machine guns and rifles came within 600 yards of information ministry.

Shortly after the mortar fire and other explosions around 4:50 a.m., a fire burned in the palace compound on the west bank of the Tigris. U.S. troops and tanks from the 3rd Infantry Division had rumbled in there yesterday morning as more than 1,000 Marines battled their way across the Diyala River in the southeast of the city. Dozens of Iraqi soldiers were killed yesterday in the fighting.

At least 75 hurt

At Al Kindi Hospital, officials said at least 75 civilians were brought in yesterday with various injuries.

Iraqi forces defending the city center from the east bank of the Tigris fired back at the Americans with artillery and rocket-propelled grenades, but as night fell yesterday, some American troops remained in the bombed palaces in the compound, the Iraqi equivalent of the White House, which once symbolized President Saddam Hussein's absolute power.

In clear view across the river from the Palestine Hotel, two American Abrams tanks idled on the embankment yesterday at the point where the sprawling palace grounds meet a bend in the Tigris.

A squad of American infantrymen in light brown camouflage uniforms, with flak jackets and combat rifles, scoured the cluster of date palms between the palaces and the water.

Iraqis seen fleeing

At one moment a group of about 20 Iraqi soldiers could be seen scurrying away from the tanks, up the riverbank to the north, only one of them carrying a rifle and several wearing nothing but boxer shorts.

Reaching a slipway guarded on their approach by a fence running down into the water, some of the men plunged into the river and began swimming upstream. The Americans opened fire, throwing cascades of water into the air but not, apparently, striking any of the men.

A minute or two later, huts along the sandspit near the Americans exploded into infernos, followed by the pop-pop of exploding munitions.

As for the government, it showed no sign of wavering. Less than two hours after the American incursion yesterday, the Iraqi information minister, Muhammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, was at the television networks' "stand-up" positions on the second-story roof of the Palestine Hotel's conference center, to insist that the reporters had not seen what they thought they had.

If reporters believed that they had witnessed an American drive deep into the heart of the capital, Sahhaf, in the green uniform and black beret of the ruling Baath Party, wished to disabuse them.

He implied that they, and American military commanders, were hallucinating about the tanks.

"They are really sick in their minds," he said.

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