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U.S. and British Forces Besiege Basra
U.S., British Forces Edge Closer to Iraq's Toughest Defenders, Besiege Southern City of Basra

The Associated Press

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March 22

Edging closer to engagement with Iraq's hard-core defenders, U.S. and British forces besieged the southern city of Basra on Saturday and pounded Baghdad with impunity in the first daylight air raids of the war. Diplomatic complications closed off the option of a heavy invasion from the north.

Allies boasted "the instruments of tyranny are collapsing," and so, from all appearances, was the will to fight among thousands in the regular Iraqi army. Still, resistance in some areas was fierce.

On the approaches of Basra, a city of 1.3 million where Saddam Hussein's tough security forces were thought to be lodged, allies captured the airport in a gunbattle and took a bridge.

Baghdad was only a few days away by desert road, if ground forces kept up the pace they set since spilling from Kuwait in a dusty dash that has secured strategic oilfields, a seaport and towns.

Near Basra, Cobra attack helicopters, attack jets, tanks and 155 mm howitzers fought ahead of the troops to clear Highway 80. The road was nicknamed Highway of Death during the 1991 Gulf War because of an American air assault so devastating and graphic that it even gave U.S. officials pause.

"The attack continues as we speak, and has already moved the distance of the longest maneuver in the 1991 Gulf War in a quarter of the time," U.S. Brig. Gen. Vince Brooks said.

The fate of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein remained unknown to the U.S. and British officials trying to kill him.

"Actually, I don't know if he's alive or not," U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks, the war commander, said Saturday.

U.S. officials had no new, credible intelligence showing whether Saddam had survived assaults on his compounds, or whether he might have been wounded, as has been speculated.

But a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said another senior Iraqi leader was known to be alive and might be running some of Iraq's defenses: Saddam's cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid al-Tikriti.

He is known to his enemies as "Chemical Ali" for leading deadly 1988 attacks against rebellious Kurds that included chemical weapons.

Any thought the allies would limit air attacks to the cover of darkness vanished in the smoky sunlight Saturday.

A dozen huge columns of smoke rose along Baghdad's southern horizon in the afternoon and intermittent explosions were heard through the capital.

But when darkness did fall, the intensity picked up. Strong blasts rocked the capital. Warplanes were heard overhead once again.

U.S. military officials, after weeks of recalcitrance by Turkish leaders, gave up on the idea of using Turkish bases to move heavy armored forces into northern Iraq, and redirected ships loaded with the weaponry to the Persian Gulf.

The United States wanted to be in position in northern Iraq not only for war purposes but to discourage a feared conflict between Turkish forces and Iraqi Kurds.

The 4th Infantry's soldiers, about 17,000, have remained out of action at Fort Hood, Texas, pending resolution of the matter. They will probably enter the conflict from Kuwait; how many is not known.

In Baghdad, an earlier round of bombing, seemingly apocalyptic in scale, terrifying in its effect, laid waste to presidential palaces, government offices and military headquarters.

But only three people died in that bombardment, Iraqi officials said Saturday. They said more than 200 were injured.

"The Americans have no conscience," said Amal Hassan Kamel, tending to her 8-year-old son, Wa'ad, in hospital with shrapnel wounds. "What have our children done to deserve this?"

Allies emphasized they were trying to avoid non-military targets. By luck or design, Baghdad's electrical grid survived the towering fireballs.

"The lights stayed on in Baghdad, but the instruments of tyranny are collapsing," said British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon.

West of Baghdad, along the Euphrates River, another of Saddam's palaces was destroyed Saturday in a strike by warplanes from the USS Theodore Roosevelt, according to a commander aboard the carrier in the Mediterranean.

And in the far noth, U.S. forces fired Tomahawk cruise missiles at suspected positions of Ansar al Islam guerrillas, accused of having ties to al-Qaida terrorists.

An apparent car bomb killed at least five people, including a Western journalist, on Saturday at a road checkpoint near an Ansar al Islam encampment. Eight people were wounded.

Neighboring Iran protested hits on Iranian territory by at least three U.S. missiles. The State Department, through Swiss intermediaries, told Tehran that the United States was investigating and respected Iran's territorial integrity.

As the allied forces moved rapidly through the desert, a few children waved; others patted their stomachs or lifted their hands to their mouths to show they were hungry.

Bedraggled Iraqi soldiers surrendered, including some 8,000 soldiers with 200 tanks making up the entire 51st Infantry Division, a mechanized unit stationed in Basra.

But the city of palm groves and oil facilities Iraq's main seaport and second largest city bristled with danger and unpredictability.

Saddam's security forces in Basra opened up with artillery and heavy machine guns. Facing the prospect of urban warfare, allied commanders hoped to win the surrender of their enemy rather than have to overpower the city.

"Military commanders do not engage in urban areas unless they have to," Vernon said. The British took charge of the Basra fighting Saturday as U.S. Marines pressed north

Even the smaller conquest, the Umm-Qasr seaport, was not entirely safe after two days of effort to secure it; Vernon said some Iraqi combatants had slipped into civilian garb and become guerillas.

The U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division surged 100 miles through the desert to the Euphrates River, heading straight for Baghdad and the well-trained Republican Guard troops defending the capital.

In President Bush convened a wartime national security meeting at the Camp David, Md., presidential retreat, where he was spending his first weekend since unleashing the armed forces on Iraq on Wednesday.

"Our cause is just the security of the nations we serve and the peace of the world," Bush said in his weekly radio address. "And our mission is clear to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein's support for terrorism and to free the Iraqi people."

Franks, from his regional command post in Qatar, said coalition forces had not located any weapons of mass destruction. He said "that is work that lies in front of us rather than work that we have already accomplished."

Iraqi state television, trying to show Saddam is still alive and in control, reported that he had two meetings Saturday with senior government members and one of his sons,.

It showed footage of Saddam but there was no way to know when it was taken. Saddam had not been seen since he appeared on TV after the opening air strikes in a video that might have been recorded earlier.

In Saudi Arabia, Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal urged the U.S. and Iraqi leaders to end hostilities and let diplomacy work. "Let's have a breather," he said.

In cities around the world, thousands marched in protest. Tens of thousands of people marched in France, some holding rainbow-hued peace flags and others shouting "Bush, murderer."

photo credit and caption:
A U.S. military convoy passes burning oil pipelines heading toward Baghdad, near the southern Iraqi city of Basra, Saturday, March 22, 2003. American and British troops encountered little resistance as they seized Iraq's only port city Umm Qasr and moved to secure oil fields. (AP Photo/Laurent Rebours)

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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