April 3, 2003
Posted at: 11:10 a.m. CST
BAGHDAD, Iraq - Large sections of the Iraqi capital plunged into darkness Thursday night as loud explosions thundered through the outskirts of the city.
The blasts persisted for nearly 15 minutes before the power went off — the first widespread electrical failure in Baghdad since the U.S.-led bombardment began two weeks ago.
The reason for the loss of power was not immediately clear. However, U.S. troops from the 3rd Infantry Division were reported to be 15 miles south of the center of Baghdad.
According to a spokesman from U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar, the blackout is not due to any coalition action in, or around Baghdad.
As the U.S. ground forces were advancing earlier in the day, a televised statement attributed to Saddam Hussein exhorted the Iraqi people to "fight them with your hands."
The statement, addressed to the people of the region southeast of Baghdad, 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.
"Fight them with your hands, God will disgrace them. God is great," Thursday's statement said.
At a news conference, Sahhaf disputed coalition claims of battle successes. "All this is to cover their disappointment and inability," he said.
"They are not even 100 miles (away from Baghdad). They are not anywhere. They are like a snake moving in the desert. They have no foothold in Iraq. ... They do not even control Umm Qasr," the information minister said, referring to the southern port city held by British forces.
Hoping to counter reports that allied forces had taken Saddam International Airport — U.S. Central Command said its units were "in the vicinity" of the airport — Iraqi officials took reporters to the facility Thursday afternoon.
The airport was deserted save 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 almost completely destroyed. It was not clear who had occupied those buildings.
Sahhaf said Republican Guard forces battled coalition troops in the area south of Kut and "taught them lessons, a catastrophe," inflicting heavy casualties and forcing a coalition retreat. "We buried a lot of them today," he said.
He also claimed Iraqi forces had killed scores of coalition troops on Wednesday at Basra in the south.
"We're now trying to exhaust them, making them more tired until our leadership decides the time and method to clean our territory of their desecration," Sahhaf said.
The U.S. military reported only three Marines wounded in the fighting at Kut and said its forces were advancing into the outskirts of Baghdad unhindered by the Republican Guard.
Meanwhile, the air assault on Baghdad continued. The site of Baghdad's old airport was struck overnight by coalition aircraft. The target appeared to be a row of tin shelters which stretch for about a mile where the Trade Ministry stores hundreds of imported cars.
Iraqi Trade Minister Mohammed Mehdi Saleh accused coalition forces of breaking into Iraqi warehouses and stealing children's milk and supplies.
When asked where Saddam is and why he has not been seen on television, Saleh laughed.
"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."