Under Fire in Baghdad

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The remains of the bunker where Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was believed to be meeting with his sons

A dramatic change happened in Baghdad overnight — either that, or something very nasty is about to happen to the dozens of foreign journalists holed up in the Hotel Palestine. That was how the international press corps gathered at the Palestine Hotel in the Iraqi capital interpreted the sudden disappearance of most of the government minders who have remained at their sides throughout the war. TIME photographer Yuri Kozyrev phoned home Tuesday morning to report that most of the "guides" had gone, and not returned, leaving correspondents freed of government restraints but facing new perils in the final battle for Baghdad. Many of the journalists took the development as a sign that the regime may be collapsing. Kozyrev did manage, however, to find a driver to take him around Baghdad. And he found the streets around the Palestine eerily deserted, with neither soldiers nor civilians in sight. U.S. forces were not advancing and were not, at that moment, under attack. The streets were dead, but he did, amazingly, find a small restaurant open where he was able to buy provisions for journalists back in the hotel.

The TIME photographer, who has spent months in Iraq, believes the Republican Guard units inside Baghdad have simply dispersed and gone home. He made his way to the house in the suburb of al-Mansour bombed the previous night by U.S. 'bunker-busters' following an intelligence tip that placed Saddam Hussein and his sons there. "I have never seen such a huge crater," said Kozyrev. "Can't imagine what kind of munitions were used to wreak such havoc. The house was a kind of private villa of which nothing is left."

Saddam's fate is not known, Kozyrev reports, nor that of his sons. Wild rumors that circulated in the neighborhood afterwards had Saddam climbing into a tank or firing mortar shells at American positions following the strike, but nobody is setting much store by those accounts.

If the disappearance of the government minders had been an omen for the journalists at the Palestine Hotel, the peril came from an unexpected quarter — U.S. tanks deployed on the opposite bank of the Tigris River. Kozyrev called again Tuesday afternoon, Baghdad time, so shaken he was barely able to speak. One of the U.S. tanks across the river fired a shell into the hotel, killing two journalists. Others were wounded and taken to hospital. (The commander of U.S. 3rd Infantry forces inside Baghdad reportedly said the tank fired a single round after U.S. troops came under fire from the hotel, a claim disputed by some of the journalists present.)

Kozyrev reports that U.S. forces have begun advancing slowly and cautiously. Although there are no longer many Iraqi troops in evidence, their concern is to avoid attacks by Iraqi irregulars of the Fedayeen Saddam. Says Kozyrev, "Whoever is left is not likely to surrender."