BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraq's defense minister said Thursday the real battle for Baghdad will be on its streets, making his bold remarks just before the most powerful blasts in days rattled the capital and destroyed communications and command facilities.
The enemy must come inside Baghdad, and that will be its grave," Defense Minister Sultan Hashem Ahmed said. "We feel that this war must be prolonged so the enemy pays a high price."
At a news conference in a Baghdad hotel, Ahmed warned that U.S.-led forces would have to fight for the city street by street.
Hours later - shortly after 11 p.m. - the air assault delivered one of the strongest blasts felt in the city in days as allied forces zeroed in on one of Saddam Hussein's presidential compounds in the heart of Baghdad.
Another round of powerful explosions began at 2:30 a.m. Friday and went on for a half hour, with aircraft heard flying overhead and bursts of antiaircraft fire. The Palestine Hotel, where many reporters are staying, shook violently during the blasts.
"Coalition air forces and Tomahawk missiles took out a communications and command and control facilities in the capital city during the night," said Lt. Cmdr. Charles Owens, a spokesman reading from a bulletin at the command center in Camp As Sayliyah.
Iraq's satellite television channel was cutting in and out after the airstrike. The U.S. forces had hoped to knock out Iraqi television and radio to disable Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's propaganda outlets.
The night's precision bombing strike targeted a building inside the Old Palace complex - a presidential compound hit in earlier attacks. The compound, on the west bank of the Tigris River, includes a camp of the Republican Guard which was also targeted last week.
One massive blast sent flames and dense, orange smoke into the sky. In addition to the attack in the center of the city, other very strong explosions were heard southwest of Baghdad.
There also was bombing in the Mosul area in northern Iraq beginning about 10:30 p.m..
Hours earlier, loud explosions were heard in and around Baghdad, with witnesses saying an unknown number of people were killed and injured in an attack on a housing complex for employees of a weapons-producing facility.
The Military Industrialization Authority of Iraq complex is in the Al-Youssifiah area, about 12 miles south of the capital.
An explosion about 700 yards west of the Information Ministry sent scores of journalists fleeing. Anti-aircraft guns on the roof of the ministry opened fire, witnesses said, but there was no word on damage or casualties.
One of Baghdad's main telephone facilities also was hit early Thursday, causing service disruptions.
Iraqi officials, speaking before the late night attacks, said 36 civilians were killed and 215 injured in U.S. bombing a day earlier.
"They are targeting the human beings in Iraq to decrease their morale," Iraqi Health Minister Omeed Medhat Mubarak said of the air attacks. "They are not discriminating, differentiating."
The American military said there was no proof the deaths Wednesday were caused by U.S. missiles.
When Baghdad residents awoke Thursday to find a two-day sandstorm replaced by blue skies, it was an ominous sign. The vastly improved conditions would likely mean an increase in warplanes targeting the city.
Yet parts of Baghdad resumed life as usual - hundreds of shoppers milling around, streets jammed with traffic. Jomaa al-Qurishi, 29, was selling newspaper at his usual spot near the east bank of the Tigris River.
The daily bombing of the Iraqi capital, he said, has not changed his routine.
"I have been selling newspapers at this spot for 13 years and no bombs are going to stop me," said al-Qurishi, back on the street Thursday. "Death comes to you at any time wherever you may be."
Baghdad's defenders rekindled fuel fires intended to obscure bombing targets, sending clouds of gray smoke drifting across the sky. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Iraq's hard-line military, the Republican Guard, had encircled Baghdad to make its stand against the U.S.-led forces.
The smoke appeared to have little effect on Thursday's airstrikes. Neither did the fine coat of yellow desert sand that covered everything from cars to dining tables to books.
Iraqi state television reported Thursday that Saddam chaired a meeting of the ruling Baath Party, his top aides and his son, Qusai. No video was show, but it was reported that Saddam and the leadership urged Iraqi fighters to exploit the "exhaustion" of coalition forces.
Silent video was shown of another meeting of Saddam, Qusai and other party officials.