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March 22, 2003
 
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(Reuters Photo)
Daylight Raids Hit Baghdad, Basra Under Attack

Reuters


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March 22

By Samia Nakhoul

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The United States and Britain unleashed their first daylight air strikes on Baghdad on Saturday after pounding it with a fearsome night blitz.

After the bombing rose to a new intensity in the Iraqi capital, U.S. forces said they had captured a vital crossing point over the Euphrates river, and were battling toward Iraq's second city of Basra in the south.

Repeated air raids rocked Baghdad through the day after a devastating night bombardment that set off giant fireballs, thunderous explosions and mushroom clouds, reddening the sky in a major intensification of the three-day-old war.

"So this is what they meant by 'shock and awe'," said a shaken taxi driver, referring to the Pentagon's description of bombing on a scale designed to terrify Iraq into submission.

A U.S. officer near Nassiriya, about 200 miles southeast of Baghdad, said forces trying to clear a path to the capital had secured a bridge over the Euphrates. "We've established checkpoints at both ends" of the bridge, he said.

Reuters correspondent Andrew Gray, traveling with the U.S. Third Infantry Division and about a mile from the bridge, heard explosions from the area.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the assault on Baghdad aimed to convince Iraqis that President Saddam Hussein was "history." He said the Iraqi leadership was losing its grip.

In a defiant response, Iraq's information minister said the raids 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.

Red Cross workers saw at least 100 people described as war-wounded in a Baghdad hospital, but said they could not confirm the casualty figures given by Iraqi officials.

ANTI-WAR PROTESTS

The intensifying hostilities drew fresh anti-war protests around the world -- and cheers from some ordinary Kuwaitis happy to see their former Iraqi occupiers punished.

Pope John Paul said the war threatened humanity. "Violence and weapons can never resolve the problems of man," he said.

Thousands of anti-war protesters staged peaceful rallies in Asia, while Arabs outraged by the bombing of Baghdad took to the streets in Bahrain and Oman -- two Gulf states that host U.S. forces -- as well as in other Arab countries.

Aid agencies said up to half a million Iraqis had fled cities in the northern Kurdish areas ahead of the U.S.-led invasion, moving their families to outlying villages.

American Marines said their tanks were assaulting Iraqi forces defending the southern city of Basra.

"We are attacking Iraqi forces, all of which are west of Basra," Captain Andrew Bergen told reporters in the area. "I would certainly say it's a major battle."

A British military spokesman said U.S.-led forces were hoping to negotiate Basra's surrender, but gave no details.

He said seven of the hundreds of oil wells in the huge Rumaila fields west of Basra were still on fire. Iraq has denied sabotaging its own wells, saying it set oil-filled trenches ablaze to prevent enemy pilots from picking out targets.

Britain refused to be drawn on how long the war would take. It was going "according to plan and in many respects is ahead of the plan," British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said.

British Defense Chief of Staff Michael Boyce said Iraq's 51st Division had surrendered in Basra and "we have many thousands of prisoners of war." An Iraqi military spokesman denied that the division or its commanders had surrendered.

NO RESPITE IN BAGHDAD

The renewed raids on Baghdad meant daylight brought no respite to frightened residents. Reuters correspondent Khaled Oweis said two missiles slammed into Saddam's main palace compound in Baghdad at dawn, sending up a cloud of pulverized concrete from what appeared to have been an underground bunker.

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 had fired missiles and launched an air raid on Saturday on the mountain stronghold of Ansar al-Islam, a group Washington accuses of ties to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.

Mustafa Sayyid Qadir, a Kurdish commander in the town of Halabja, said there may have been at least 100 casualties in the raids, but these estimates could not be confirmed.

U.S. Marines in the south said they were well placed to strike into the heartlands of Iraq after an arduous cross-desert trek put them astride the main highway to Baghdad.

The Marines, driving north from Kuwait since Thursday night, bypassed Basra to reach positions some 90 miles inside Iraq, Reuters correspondent Sean Maguire reported.

Exhausted marines were trying to catch some sleep, repair battered vehicles and refuel before pushing on toward Baghdad, some 310 miles from the Kuwaiti border.

Many were occupied with receiving Iraqi soldiers who were walking to U.S. positions to surrender by the dozen. They included army captains with pistols. Rank and file troops appeared ill-equipped, with some walking barefoot.

Two British naval helicopters collided over the Gulf, killing six British crewmen and an American officer.

POCKETS OF RESISTANCE

U.S. Marines still faced resistance in Umm Qasr, a day after Rumsfeld said they had taken Iraq's only deep-water port.

"We did meet some resistance, it's probably not going as quick as we would have liked," said Colonel Thomas Waldhauser, commander of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

He said U.S. and British forces had taken 400 to 450 prisoners in fighting around Umm Qasr and the nearby Faw peninsula at the head of the Gulf.

U.S. officials also said American troops had seized two airfields in the Iraqi desert 140 and 180 miles) west of the capital, part of a move to encircle Baghdad.

The Iraqi information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, said these claims were "illusions and lies."

Iraq said Saddam had survived air strikes on Thursday that aimed to kill him, but U.S. and British officials said they did not know if the Iraqi leader was dead or alive.

Turkey's armed forces denied they had sent forces into Kurdish-held northern Iraq overnight, amid concern any incursion would raise tension with Iraqi Kurds and Turkey's NATO allies.

Military sources earlier said Turkey had sent a vanguard of 1,500 commandos into northern Iraq.

Kurds in the northern Iraqi enclave also said there had been no crossing by the Turks.

The United States and Britain say they went to war to deprive Iraq of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons that could one day become a threat. Iraq denies having such weapons.


photo credit and caption:
Video grab from Reuters TV shows smoke rising over the Iraqi capital of Baghdad following further bombing raids by U.S.-led forces, March 22, 2003. Fresh afternoon explosions rocked Baghdad on Saturday and smoke was seen rising from several locations across the Iraqi capital, a Reuters witness said. 'There are six columns of thick black smoke rising from six different bombed positions,' correspondent Nadim Ladki said. Photo by Reuters Tv/Reuters

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

 
 
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