Severe sandstorm blankets Baghdad

Image:  policeman wears a mask as he directs traffic
A policeman directs traffic in Baghdad on Thursday amid swirling dust that lowered visibility so much that airline flights were halted.Ceerwan Aziz / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

A thick layer of yellow dust blanketed houses and cars in the Iraqi capital Thursday as a heavy sandstorm over central Iraq sent dozens of residents to hospitals with breathing difficulties.

The spring storm, one of the worst in years, forced the closure of the Baghdad International Airport. It also appeared to hamper military flights.

None of the helicopter patrols that regularly roar over the city of 6 million people seemed to be airborne. The deadliest helicopter crash in this war occurred during a sandstorm that sharply reduced visibility in 2005, when a CH-53 Sea Stallion went down, killing 31 U.S. troops.

Apparently taking advantage of the reduced aerial activity, militants from eastern Baghdad repeatedly shelled the Green Zone, which houses diplomatic missions and much of the Iraqi government.

Explosions were heard across the city as salvos of rockets or mortar shells were fired into the high-security district. The U.S. Embassy confirmed the attacks but said no casualties were reported.

Many shops in the city were closed, and only a few cars were seen on the deserted streets.

AP Television News footage also showed Iraqi traffic policemen wearing masks over their mouths as protection from the dust whipped up by the hot winds.

Shukri al-Naimi, owner of a shawarma grill in the northern neighborhood of Azamiyah, said he also closed four hours earlier than usual. "I cannot use the outside grill with dust blowing everywhere around it and there are too few customers anyway."

A doctor at the Ibn al-Nafis hospital in eastern Baghdad who identified himself only as Dr. Wissam said the emergency room was crowded with people complaining of breathing problems because of the dust clogging the air. At least two elderly women and one elderly man were in critical condition and he said he expected the numbers to rise if the bad weather continues.

Sandstorms are a regular occurrence in Baghdad, which is shielded from the desert by a thin strip of arable land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.