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Baghdad Ravaged by Bombs, U.S. Forces Push Ahead


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March 22

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S. and British warplanes intensified a ferocious around-the-clock bombardment of Baghdad on Saturday, as U.S. Marines battled Iraqi forces around the southern city of Basra and America's Gulf commander vowed to conduct a campaign of overwhelming force.

U.S. infantry said they had captured a vital bridge over the Euphrates river, needed for their push toward Baghdad, but elsewhere invading troops met some stiffer-than-expected resistance as they pushed deeper into Iraq.

By contrast to opposition on the ground, U.S. and British forces had dominance of the skies, striking Baghdad with a devastating aerial assault that set off giant fireballs, thunderous explosions and glowing clouds.

Warplanes targeted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's palace on the banks of the River Tigris, government and military targets and other symbols of his rule. The precise scale of Iraqi fatalities from the bombing and the hostilities was not clear.

U.S. Army General Tommy Franks, commander of the invasion, said his forces were using munitions on a "scale never before seen" and predicted that victory was certain.

"This will be a campaign unlike any other in history. A campaign characterized by shock, by surprise, by flexibility... and by the application of overwhelming force," he said in his first briefing since the attack on Iraq began on Thursday.

Iraq denounced the attackers as criminals and appealed to the United Nations to halt the invasion "unconditionally."

After a day of fierce fighting, U.S. Marines said they had defeated Iraqi forces on the outskirts of the oil city of Basra, some 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, taking hundreds of prisoners in the process. "It's definitely a big victory," U.S. Marine Captain Andrew Bergen told Reuters.

Further north, in the city of Nassiriya, U.S. troops forging a path to Baghdad secured a bridge over the Euphrates, dislodging Iraqi forces who had slowed their advance.

After two days of skirmishes, Marines said they had won control of Umm Qasr, Iraq's only deep-water port which lies close to the Kuwaiti border, despite pockets of resistance.

"Both the new and the old ports are secure," Marine Captain Rick Crevier, one of the commanders of the effort to capture Umm Qasr's twin port facilities, said.


Iraqi state television showed President Saddam Hussein meeting officials on Saturday, praising Iraqi soldiers facing the invasion. The film gave no clue as to when the meetings took place. The announcer said they took place on Saturday.

Franks said he did not know if Saddam was dead or alive after ferocious missile attacks on Baghdad this week, but that there were signs of confusion in the Iraqi government.

In his weekly radio address to the nation, President Bush cautioned against over-confidence: "A campaign on harsh terrain in a vast country could be longer and more difficult than some have predicted," he said.

Operation Iraqi Freedom, launched to oust Saddam and the ruling Baath Party, unlike the 1991 Gulf War, failed to win the endorsement of the United Nations Security Council.

Bush argues it is vital to topple Saddam's government to secure and destroy weapons of mass destruction that Baghdad says it does not possess.

This is the first war Washington has fought since a strategy was unveiled last year that asserts Washington has the right to launch pre-emptive strikes on countries deemed a threat even before the United States is itself attacked.

In a defiant response, Iraq's information minister said the attacks were the work of an "international gang of criminal bastards" and had wounded more than 200 civilians in Baghdad.

Health Minister Umeed Midhat Mubarak said later that at least three people had been "martyred" in the raids on Baghdad.

As sun set, Iraqi forces lit oil-filled trenches around Baghdad in an apparent bid to create a smokescreen to hinder air strikes. Military experts said this would not halt the U.S. bombers and as darkness fell, new air raids swept the city.

Intensifying hostilities drew fresh anti-war protests.

Protesters massed in London to denounce British involvement in the Iraq war, as emotional anti-war demonstrators filled city streets across Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Demanding "Blair Out!" and "Bring Our Boys Home!," demonstrators gathered in central London's Hyde Park to put pressure on Prime Minister Tony Blair's government.


U.S. officials said they had scrapped plans to move U.S. troops through Turkey into northern Iraq and instead would send the 4th Infantry Division from Texas to Kuwait.

Abandonment of the use of Turkey to open a planned "northern front" followed Ankara's refusal to provide transit rights for as many as 62,000 American troops into Iraq.

Washington told Iran it took a report of misfired missiles landing in Iranian territory seriously and would investigate.

U.S. and British officials said they were doing everything they could to limit civilian casualties and the bombing raids were aimed at Saddam's control network, not the Iraqi people.

"The lights stayed on in Baghdad, but the instruments of tyranny are collapsing," British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon told a news conference in London.

As thousands of U.S. tanks and armored vehicles plowed through southern Iraq aiming for Baghdad, military sources said the invading force was anxious not to get involved in street fighting in cities along the route.

A British spokesman said U.S.-led forces were hoping to negotiate Basra's surrender, while General Franks said his forces had no plans for confrontation in the city.

He added that to date, U.S. and British troops had taken between 1,000-2,000 prisoners of war. Reuters correspondents with U.S. units said rank and file Iraqi troops appeared ill-equipped as they surrendered, with some walking barefoot.

British Defense Chief of Staff Michael Boyce said Iraq's 51st Division had surrendered en masse in Basra. An Iraqi military spokesman denied this.


The Iraqi leader has deployed his best troops, including elite Republican Guard units, in Baghdad, where he may try to draw the invaders into street fighting that would neutralize some of their overwhelming technological advantages.

A Kurdish faction running part of northern Iraq said U.S. forces fired missiles and launched an air raid on the mountain stronghold of Ansar al-Islam, a group Washington accuses of ties to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.

Later on Saturday a car bomb exploded close to the border with Iran, killing an Australian journalist and one other person. Kurdish officials blamed Ansar for the attack. Three other British journalists were missing.

A journalist with Britain's Sky TV said four U.S. soldiers he was traveling with were killed in central Iraq after their vehicles were attacked. There was no immediate confirmation.

Two British navy helicopters collided over the Gulf, killing six British crewmen and an American officer. On Thursday, eight British marines and four U.S. Marines died when their helicopter crashed in Kuwait.

photo credit and caption:
A U.S. Marine A10 pilot flexes as he taxis for takeoff from a base in Kuwait March 22, 2003. The U.S. and Britain unleashed their first daylight air strikes on Baghdad on Saturday after pounding it with a fearsome night blitz. Photo by Russell Boyce/Reuters

Copyright 2003 Reuters News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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