WITH the boom of artillery fire ringing in their ears, thousands of terrified Baghdadis searched for safety yesterday as the reality of the coming battle began to sink in, perhaps for the first time.
"This is it. This is the final battle. We have no way out. We are facing a reality now. We’re confronting the mightiest army in the world. What can we do? Where can we go? We’re at a loss," said Nour Khaled, 48, a mother of two.
"We will definitely die. Who can escape such a war? My husband and I pray to God that if we’re to die we wish to die together. Our main fear is that our children will die and we will stay alive.
"Yesterday we saw death in front of our eyes," a traumatised Mrs Khaled added, recounting how a missile crashed near her home on the outskirts of Baghdad, forcing her to flee barefoot carrying her two children.
Even if the state-run media did not report the US advances, the blitz that accompanied the thrust conveyed the message.
"I cannot talk. I cannot even begin to describe to you what happened. It was a night of hell. There was relentless bombardment all night. We thought that they have entered all of Baghdad and occupied the whole city," one woman said.
"The planes were dropping and unloading their bombs over our heads," she said, trembling after her drive from the airport district. She had stopped to buy bread at one of the few stores open yesterday - the Muslim holy day.
"It was terrifying. Not just for the kids but for us adults," the woman said, adding that many of her neighbours in the Radwaniya suburb near the airport were also fleeing to take refuge with friends and relatives closer to the centre.
Elsewhere in the capital, thousands of Iraqis ignored Saddam Hussein’s exhortations to stay and fight and were fleeing the capital in a bumper-to-bumper stream of vehicles.
Iraqi civilians packed food and belongings into lorries, buses and cars in an exodus from the city’s northern and north-eastern districts.
Witnesses said queues of vehicles extended up to six miles. Many were headed to the province of Diala, north-east of the capital.
The people of Baghdad have no illusions or hope that anything can spare them carnage.
After so many inconclusive battles, bombardments and skirmishes over the 13 years since Saddam began his conflict with what is now the world’s sole superpower, most people believe this is the final showdown.
Most said they could no longer live with uncertainty and were ready to face their destiny even if it meant death.
The force of the latest air assault and quick advance towards the capital and airport appeared to have caught many by surprise.
"The bombardment was horrific. It was the worst and the most powerful so far. We felt as if the Americans were going to be outside our homes any time," said Jamila Husamy, 45, among many fleeing the suburbs near the airport into the city.
Cars loaded with blankets and possessions piled on the roof raced at high speed up the main highway from the airport towards the city centre.
Despite the conflict, traffic on the streets was about normal early yesterday and some shops were open.
By late afternoon, queues at petrol stations grew much longer and some neighbourhoods, especially those in the south, were quieter than usual.
Most shops were shut and most people stayed indoors, confused by rumours, ignored on state media, that US troops had seized Saddam International Airport.
Most beleaguered Iraqi civilians say they have no place to run and no place to hide. Most of the city’s poor people live in shacks without any shelter or a basement.
Over Thursday night and into yesterday, the city was plunged into darkness. In parts of Baghdad, including the centre, power was still off in early afternoon. But water, cut off when the power went down, is flowing again and electricity has returned to some areas.
Most residents, who have experienced two previous wars, said they had the ominous feeling that all-out war was imminent the minute the city plunged into blackout.
"People get a confirmation that US military landing was taking place when the electricity was cut," one woman said.
At a sandbagged sentry post, one guard vowed to resist any US assault.
"We have given allegiance to our leader Saddam Hussein that we will be faithful soldiers," said Abdul Wahid Hidawi. "All they have to do is come to Baghdad to face the real Iraqis and, God willing we will make of them an example to others."
But proud and patriotic as they are, many are pessimistic about confronting the power of the United States. "This is the American army. Who can defeat it? People are not stupid, they know that," Mrs Khaled said.
Most, battered by 20 years of wars, said they want the war to end, whatever the outcome.
"We’re tired of waiting. We’re tired of suffering. We want salvation. We want this war to end. The attacks are hurting us.
"This is like a slow death. We’re being tortured daily. I’d rather die quickly than go through this slow death," said Zainab Hussein, aged 42.