BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Huge explosions shattered the silence across Baghdad early today, with blasts rocking the center of the city and a plume of white smoke rising from the southern end of the Old Palace grounds in the capital.

More explosions hit Baghdad in the 30 minutes after the first blast at 3 a.m. The Old Palace, the ceremonial seat of government on the west bank of the Tigris, is also home to a camp for Saddam Hussein’s vaunted Republican Guard.

The palace, which was rarely used openly by Saddam, remained a frequent target of the nightly aerial attacks on the city of 5 million people.

Explosions and the wail of air raid sirens have become a staple of Baghdad’s nights since the campaign began with a missile attack on March 20.

But by day, despite two weeks of attacks and damage to dozens of local sites and landmarks, the Iraqi capital maintains the appearance of a functioning city.

The targets have varied greatly, from presidential palaces to residential areas and at least five telephone exchanges. But the city’s power supply remains intact and street lights come on at night.

The phone exchanges have provided the city’s residents with the most graphic scenes of destruction. Strewn among the wreckage are thousands of wires, as well as furniture, computers, metal cabinets, chairs and the sponge used to fill in false walls and ceilings.

The exchanges were struck in remarkably accurate hits, taking out the target and largely leaving everything around it intact. Some homes lost windows or more, but so far there have been no casualties in those strikes – all launched in the middle of the night.

The attack early today followed two days of explosions, with allied warplanes and missiles blasting Iraq’s Olympic headquarters, one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces and what was reportedly an air force officers club.

Those strikes produced some of the strongest blasts in the Iraqi capital since the war began March 20. Explosions also rumbled south of the city overnight in attacks apparently aimed at Republican Guard units defending Baghdad.

Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf said 56 people were killed and 268 wounded overnight yesterday, including 24 dead in Baghdad. He said nine children, including an infant, were killed yesterday morning in the town of Hillah, about 50 miles south of the capital.

“They are racist. So they are indiscriminately killing people,” al-Sahhaf said. “Hillah is my hometown. It is a civilian place.”

Some of the attacks, mostly by Tomahawk cruise missiles, left government buildings smoldering for a day or two. Others, like one next to the Planning Ministry, were gutted.

Another notable sight in the capital is the Al-Salam presidential palace, a Baghdad landmark because it has four busts of Saddam on each corner of the main palace building, a square-shaped structure with a dome sitting atop. The busts are visible from the road, together with a gaping hole in each side of the building.

Many of the buildings hit in the air bombing are still standing. Some may need repairs to be usable again, others not.

Yesterday, the old headquarters of the Iraqi air force, which has in recent years been used as an officers’ club, was gone. Nothing remained except a heap of gray rubble and a few pillars.

In addition, U.S. military officials said allied aircraft bombed a complex that serves as the office of the Iraqi National Olympic Committee, where Saddam’s son Odai is said to run a torture center. Human rights activists have accused him of jailing and brutalizing athletes who failed to please him.

The lower four floors of the nine-story Olympic building were severely damaged. Walls were blown out and mangled wire and steel protruded. The building sits in a big complex of housing units, and they appeared unscathed.

Iraqi TV is another Baghdad institution still standing – though Saddam Hussein last appeared on it on Saturday night. Al-Sahhaf went on the air yesterday to read a statement purportedly from the Iraqi president to his people, though Saddam himself was nowhere to be seen.

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