BAGHDAD, Iraq - Enveloping the capital in an eerie orange glow, a blinding sandstorm Monday reduced visibility in Baghdad to a few feet - slowing traffic to a crawl, canceling a key meeting on the Iraqi constitution and sending hundreds of people to the hospital with breathing problems.
Howling winds whipped up desert sands overnight, coating the streets of the city in a gritty opaque haze. Though sandstorms are common in Iraq's desert terrain, especially during the summer, the one that arrived overnight was the worst in two years, long-suffering residents said.
"Baghdad looks miserable today," resident Ahmed Malik said. "Shops are closed as if there is no life in the city, as if a nuclear bomb attacked it. It's completely abandoned."
The storm's fury forced Iraq's political leaders to postpone key talks aimed at breaking an impasse over drafting the country's new constitution by next Monday's deadline. A second round of talks had been set for Monday evening but was delayed for at least a day.
Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, had planned to attend the meetings, including the opening session Sunday night, but remained stranded in the northern city of Irbil, after flights into Baghdad International Airport were canceled because of poor visibility.
The capital's weather forecasting center said the sandstorm was expected to last 48 hours, though lessening in intensity. Storms were also reported across Iraq's border in Kuwait and in southeastern Jordan.
Throughout Baghdad, cars coated in sand slowed to a crawl as the handful of residents who ventured outside covered their faces in scarves or surgical masks to keep out the dust.
An estimated 300 people crowded into Yarmouk Hospital complaining of respiratory problems - many of them asthma sufferers, said Dr. Muhannad Jawad. Hallways quickly filled with patients, many of them very young or very old.
"After the sandstorm started about 2 a.m., we realized that the hospital would be engulfed with people after curfew ended so we dedicated two big halls in the emergency ward with all the necessary medicines and equipment for them," he said. "By 6 a.m., people were flooding into the hospital. They are still coming."
A panicked Hana Ahmed, 45, brought in her 12-year-old son after he succumbed to an asthma attack overnight.
"He collapsed and turned blue because he couldn't breathe last night," she said. "We couldn't take our son to the hospital because of the curfew. I was dying every single moment as I was holding Abdul Qader in my arms and seeing him struggling to breathe."
But her son revived after he received oxygen and he was discharged hours later, she said. "Now, we are keeping Abdul Qader in a very secure room where I close all the doors and windows."
For Baghdad's residents, this summer has been particular brutal. Power shortages from insurgent attacks have left most families with only a few hours of electricity a day during a broiling summer where temperatures routinely hover around 113 degrees.
"It was the most awful night that I ever spent in my life. The sandstorm engulfed our house as the electricity went out. We all were suffering and couldn't sleep at all," said Ali al-Yassiri, 33, who owns an herb shop in the northern Baghdad district of Azamiyah.
The last time a sandstorm of this magnitude was reported was during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in spring 2003, when the military march to Baghdad was delayed for several days.
Elsewhere, U.S. Marines discovered a car bomb factory Monday in a western Iraqi town near where 20 members of the American unit were killed last week, the U.S. military said.
Six vehicles rigged with explosives were found in the hide-out in the northern part of Haqlaniyah, one of a cluster of towns in western Anbar province long believed to be a stronghold of Iraqi insurgents and foreign fighters.
U.S. and Iraqi forces also found five roadside bombs Monday on a road in Haqlaniyah, the statement said. All were detonated in place.
As part of a major offensive to clear the restive area, Marines have been continuing their sweep of Haqlaniyah and other communities in the area despite the deaths of 20 of their comrades last week. Six members of a Marine sniper team were killed in the area Aug. 1, and 14 others and a civilian translator died in a huge blast two days later.
Saddam Hussein's family, meanwhile, said it has dissolved his Jordan-based legal team and appointed Iraqi lawyer Khalil al-Dulaimi as the "one and sole legal counsel." The move was seen as reorganizing the defense ahead of Saddam's trial.
One of the Iraqi judges who have interrogated Saddam also accused the ex-leader's lawyers of making up stories of ill-treatment.
In an interview Sunday, Judge Munir Haddad, an Iraqi Kurd, told Associated Press Television News that Saddam's first trial will begin "within 45 to 50 days." The first trial will involve Saddam's alleged role in the 1982 massacre of Shiite Muslims in Dujail north of Baghdad.
Haddad denied recent claims by al-Dulaimi that the former president was attacked during a court appearance in late July and said such stories were an attempt to get the trial moved to Europe, where the death sentence is banned.