Allied commanders open the battle for the airwaves with a failed attack on state television headquarters

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Cruise missiles destroyed the headquarters of Iraq's main television station yesterday after coalition commanders had an apparent change of heart and opened the battle for control of the airwaves.

Cruise missiles destroyed the headquarters of Iraq's main television station yesterday after coalition commanders had an apparent change of heart and opened the battle for control of the airwaves.

The raid on the building in central Baghdad, which was condemned by human rights groups, halted broadcasts by the country's satellite TV service shortly before dawn.

It was part of a continuing bombardment of the Iraqi capital. Air raid sirens wailed repeatedly across the city while Allied bombers pounded positions in the city centre and American B-52s attacked Republican Guard divisions on the southern outskirts.

The overnight raids, which also struck the Information Ministry, continued for three hours after dawn and resumed in the late afternoon.

Despite predictions that the television station would be among the first targets for the Allied bombardment – as happened in the 1999 Nato assault on Belgrade – it had been spared until yesterday. American military officials said the building was now part of Iraq's military command and control system and therefore a legitimate target.

Within hours of the 4.30am strike the Allies knew it had failed, since the main domestic channel, which was off-air at the time of the attack, started transmitting as normal at 9am.

Viewers woke up to the usual diet of verses from the Koran, patriotic songs and news bulletins from presenters dressed in military uniform. State radio also resumed its service.

Iraqi Satellite Television, which broadcasts 24 hours a day outside the country, restarted transmissions within eight hours of the bombing.

An official at the television station blamed a "technical problem with the transmitters" for the blackout. The channels were thought to have been switched to back-up studios at a secret location.

The only channel that did not broadcast was Al-Shabab or Youth Television, a satellite station owned by Saddam Hussein's son Uday, which was based in the state centre.

The atmosphere in Baghdad was described as increasingly tense as the population emerged from the sandstorm that engulfed central Iraq on Tuesday to go about their daily business, with security men and secret police from Saddam Hussein's regime stationed on street corners.

There were reports that bridges across the Tigris had been mined by Iraqi demolition units in case American forces tried to enter the city.

Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, the Information Minister, said 194 people had been wounded in Baghdad by air raids but none had been killed.

Coalition military planners have insisted that they want to preserve Iraq's civilian infrastructure, but there has been debate within the Pentagon about whether that included the broadcasting service.

Initially the US decided to leave the television stations alone to glean intelligence and in the hope that a rapid victory would allow the Allies to harness the airwaves for their propaganda purposes.

The Iraqi regime's proficient use of the airwaves – parading a daily stream of senior ministers and exhorting Iraqis to "slit the throats" of British and US soldiers – apparently persuaded the coalition that the network was better off the air.

In recent days, the domestic service has carried a live news conference by Tariq Aziz, the Deputy Prime Minister, proclaiming that Saddam was in "good shape" and in full control.

The attack was condemned by human rights groups and journalists' organisations. Amnesty International said the assault breached the Geneva Convention by targeting civilian infrastructure. Claudio Cordone, the organisation's international law director, said: "The bombing of a television station simply because it is being used for the purposes of propaganda is unacceptable. It is a civilian object."

Reporters sans Frontières, the international journalists' group, accused the coalition of operating double standards. Robert Menard, its secretary general, said: "The Americans invoke the Geneva Convention when their prisoners are shown on Iraqi TV and just as soon forget it when it comes to bombarding a civil building that is protected by the same convention."

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