Iraqi forces in the capital city responded with anti-aircraft fire as air raid sirens wailed. Television images showed massive plumes of smoke rising from the city.
“The earth is literally shaking in Baghdad,” Reuters correspondent Khaled Oweis reported.
An Associated Press correspondent reported that three major fires were burning in Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s Old Palace compound on the west side of the Tigris River. Although the palace itself appeared untouched, a building next to it was on fire and smoke also poured out of a 10-story building in another part of the complex, the Associated Press reported.
“Baghdad is burning,” a correspondent for the Al-Jazeera television network said. “What more can we say?”
Air strikes intensified once again around 10:45 p.m. local time (2:45pm EST), as news agencies reported a large fire raging to the south of the city.
Attacks were reportedly taking place in the northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, news reports said.
Al-Jazeera television reported seeing flashes that appeared to be explosions in Mosul. Meanwhile, a Reuters reporter described an apparent attack on Kirkuk.
“I saw half a dozen bright white flashes, probably around the outskirts of Kirkuk and then heard several booms,” correspondent Joe Logan told his agency. Logan is based in a Kurdish-held area in northern Iraq with a view of Kirkuk. He said he could see anti-aircraft fire and smoke rising from an area near the city.
Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said “several hundred military targets will be hit over the coming hours.”
According to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the air campaign began at about 9 p.m. local time (1 p.m. EST). In a press briefing at the Pentagon Friday afternoon, he remarked on the power and precision of the aircraft and armaments being used in the strikes.
“The weapons that are being used today have a degree of precision that no one ever dreamt of in a prior conflict — they didn’t exist. And it’s not a handful of weapons, it’s the overwhelming majority of the weapons that have that precision,” he said.
According to Rumsfeld, the coalition onslaught is shaking Saddam Hussein’s government’s hold on Iraq.
“The regime is starting to lose control of their country,” Rumsfeld said. “The confusion of Iraqi officials is growing. They’re ability to see what is happening on the battlefield … and the control of their country is slipping away.”
Myers said that since the current operation in Iraq began at dawn Thursday local time (late Wednesday EST), coalition aircraft have flown more than 1,000 sorties and dropped “scores of precision-guided munitions on Iraqi military targets.”
Friday’s air attacks came as U.S. and British ground forces continued their incursion into Iraq from the south, pushing some 100 miles into Iraq from the Kuwaiti border, Myers said.
According to Myers, U.S. ground troops have secured the port city of Umm Qasar and the al-Faw peninsula, as well as the main oil manifolds along the al-Faw waterways. Myers said troops have “moved through the southern Iraqi oil fields.” Myers said he expected troops to secure those fields “sometime later today.”