Baghdad was burning this morning after US and British forces rained bombs and missiles on the capital in the start of their campaign to "shock and awe" Saddam Hussein's regime into submission.
Eight hours after the massive air raid, giant plumes of smoke continued to spiral skyward as speculation ran rife in western circles on the fate of Saddam, whose Republican Palace, symbol of his iron grip on Iraq since 1979, lay in flames and smoldering ash.
Minutes after the onslaught began, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in Washington the Iraqi president's regime was "starting to lose control of their country."
For nearly an hour, thunderous explosions rocked the ancient city of five million people, sending fireballs and thick smoke billowing skyward and triggering earth-shaking shock waves.
There was no immediate word on casualties. But ambulances wailed through the streets even as the ordnance fell. Iraqi anti-aircraft gunners filled the sky with tracer fire on day two of the war the United States and Britain have said would continue until Saddam's 24-year reign is ended.
Rumsfeld's Iraqi counterpart, Sultan Hashim Ahmed, defiantly told a Baghdad press conference amid the bombing that Iraq would prevail.
"No force in the world will conquer us because we are defending our country, our principles and our religion," Ahmed said, his voice sporadically drowned out by violent explosions.
Rumsfeld announced the start of the air war barely 40 hours after the United States and Britain launched their main offensive to unseat Saddam and destroy his alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.
The United States was using "striking force to make clear to Iraqis that he and his regime are finished," he said.
Aboard the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk in the Gulf, a senior naval commander said US forces had fired about 320 missiles at Baghdad and surrounding areas during the barrage.
"What is taking place today is as targeted an air campaign as has ever existed," said Rumsfeld, rejecting comparisons with World War II and other blitzes.
"The weapons that are being used today have a degree of precision that no one ever dreamt of in a prior conflict," he said, insisting the targets were limited to government, defense and security installations.
Rumsfeld called the bombing "a humane effort" to "eliminate a regime that has killed hundreds of thousands of human beings."
Iraqi Information Minister Mohammad Saeed Al-Sahhaf, quoted by Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television, said a former royal residence turned museum, and a guest house, had been destroyed.
"Are these military facilities?" he asked. Addressing the invading forces, he said: "We will destroy you. We will cut off the heads of those who carry out an aggression against Iraq."