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Friday, March 21, 2003 Adar2 17, 5763 Israel Time:  20:43  (GMT+2)
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Presidential palace in Baghdad hit; Kirkuk,
Mosul also targeted
By Haaretz Service and agencies
An American B-52 bomber taking off from an RAF airfield in Britain on Friday morning.
(Photo: AP)
U.S. troops tending to an Iraq captured during fighting in southern Iraq on Friday.
(Photo: Reuters)

U.S. and British forces unleashed a massive air assault on Baghdad on Friday as invasion forces advanced swiftly toward the city, where President Saddam Hussein's supporters dug in for a last stand.

Huge plumes of smoke rose from Baghdad as bombs and missiles slammed into one of Saddam's palaces and other targets. Repeated explosions reddened the night sky and shook the ground in by far the biggest raid of the war.

A Reuters journalist saw fires raging in Saddam's palace and other buildings.

A U.S. official said it was the start of a major air war, dubbed by the Pentagon as "shock and awe." A fleet of B-52 bombers had earlier been seen taking off from an airfield in southern England.

Iraq said Saddam had survived a U.S. attempt to target him directly on Thursday. But rumors persisted that the Iraqi leader was dead. British and U.S. officials said they did not know whether he was alive or dead.

Several big explosions were also heard around the city of Kirkuk in the north and anti-aircraft guns blasted the skies over Mosul.

U.S. and British leaders said the campaign to oust Saddam was going according to plan but warned that the real battle still lay ahead.

Saddam has withdrawn his best trained and most loyal forces to Baghdad, where he may be planning to force invaders into dangerous and punishing street fighting in hopes of inflicting heavy casualties.

"The important thing is to get to Baghdad to prevent Saddam's ability to effect any form of command, particularly over weapons of mass destruction," Major General Albert Whitely, deputy commander of the U.S.-British land forces, told Reuters in an interview.

Marines seize Iraqi port of Umm Qasr
In a day of swift developments, U.S. Marines captured the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr while other troops seized two airfields in the Iraqi desert 140 and 180 miles (225 km and 290 km) west of the capital, part of a move to encircle Baghdad.

British Marines launched an amphibious and aerial assault and secured key oil installations at the head of the Gulf. Other British troops headed for the port of Basra.

There were unconfirmed reports that U.S. special forces had secured the giant oilfields around Kirkuk in northern Iraq.

One U.S. armored unit ran into Iraqi resistance that halted it temporarily near Nassiriya on the Euphrates river while it called for backup. The town is a main strategic crossing point over the Euphrates 235 miles )375 km( southeast of Baghdad.

The startling speed of a U.S. advance from Kuwait deep into the Iraqi desert had prompted some British and American officers to predict a swift victory.

"We're making progress," President George W. Bush told lawmakers in the Oval Office. "We will stay on task until we've achieved our objective, which is to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and free the Iraqi people."

But British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the war would not be won overnight and White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the conflict could still be "lengthy and dangerous."

CNN: Second U.S Marine killed in Iraq
A second U.S marine has been killed in Iraq, CNN reported on Friday.

The Marine died at about 4 p.m. local time (1100 GMT), the network said.

On Thursday, in the first day of fighting, one U.S. Marine was killed in action. Eight British and four U.S. soldiers died in a helicopter crash in Kuwait.

U.S. Marines met unexpected resistance when they attacked a key southern Iraqi port earlier on Friday.

Iraqi ministers have vowed to "incinerate" the invaders and asserted that President Saddam Saddam had survived an early missile strike on a leadership bunker.

U.S. forces seize airfields in western Iraq
American forces seized important airfields in western Iraq, the only part of the country from which Iraqi missiles are capable of reaching Israel.

The airfields known as H-2 and H-3 in far western Iraq were taken without much resistance from Iraqi troops, defense officials said on condition of anonymity. But they called control of the installations "tentative."

They are important partly because Saddam Hussein is believed to have Scud missiles there.

(Click here for analysis by Ze'ev Schiff.)

American and British forces continued to advance Friday through southern Iraq, some racing unimpeded across the desert, others meeting hostile fire. Hundreds of Iraqi soldiers surrendered.

Iraqis halt U.S. advance near Nassiriya
Resistance from Iraqi troops halted U.S. forces advancing through southern Iraq on Friday near Nassiriya, a main crossing point over the Euphrates river.

Reuters correspondent Andrew Gray, travelling with elements of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division, said officers told him there was fighting near the city and they expected soon "to go and join the battle".

Gray said he saw U.S. troops return fire with two rockets.

Nassiriya is a main crossing point over the Euphrates some 375 km (235 miles) southeast of the capital Baghdad.

British Major General Albert Whitely, deputy commander of the U.S.-British land forces, told Reuters on Friday that crossing the Euphrates was the next big challenge for allied troops in their drive towards the Iraqi capital.

Other elements of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division had earlier advanced at least 150 km (90 miles) into Iraq from Kuwait, speeding north towards Baghdad, spearheading a land war aimed at ousting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and disarming Iraq of its alleged weapons of mass destruction.

U.S. marine killed in action
A U.S. marine has been killed in action, in what could the first combat death among the forces invading Iraq, CNN television said on Friday. "One U.S. marine has been killed in the line of fire," the CNN announcer said, adding there were no details. The report could not immediately be confirmed.

The allies suffered their first losses when a Marine helicopter crashed and burned in Kuwait, killing eight British soldiers and four Marines. Allied officials were trying to determined the cause of the deadly helicopter crash in northern Kuwait but said it was an accident. The CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter was assigned to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

Source: British have Basra in sights Friday night
British troops aim to seize control of the southern Iraqi city of Basra during Friday night, a UK military source said.

"One of the key aims tonight is to get hold of Basra," the source told Reuters.

He added that UK troops were preparing to take humanitarian aid into Iraq within 48 hours. "The idea is to sweep through a place then support it."

U.S. B-52 bombers which took off from an air base in England on Friday morning were due to hit Iraq within an hour as part of a "big blast", he added.

Back-channel talks
Hoping the regime might capitulate, U.S. military commanders held back-channel negotiations with Iraqi commanders and refrained from all-out bombardment. Instead, U.S. missiles and bombs struck specific targets - including the main presidential palace in Baghdad and strongholds of the Iraqi army's elite Special Republican Guard.

The spokesman for British forces in the Persian Gulf said coalition troops might enter Baghdad within the next "three or four days."

Group Captain Al Lockwood, speaking to reporters at the main allied command center in Qatar, said the U.S.-led attack could enter the Iraqi capital swiftly.

"If I was a betting man, and I'm not, I would say hopefully within the next three or four days," the British news agency Press Association quoted Lockwood as saying.

U.S. officials said Iraqi forces appeared cut off from their leadership after the initial missile attack on a Baghdad compound. It was struck because of intelligence reports that Saddam Hussein was inside.

The officials said there was no definitive word on whether Saddam was caught in the attack, but they indicated that medical workers were summoned to the compound after it was hit.

Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Sa'eed al-Sahhaf acknowledged Friday that one of Saddam Hussein's homes was hit in Thursday's bombing, though he said no one was hurt.

"They rocketed the residence of his household," he said of Saddam. "But thank God they are all safe," he told reporters in Baghdad, the Iraqi capital.

Kuwait says new Iraqi missile shot down in northwest
A Kuwait defense official said coalition Patriot missiles had shot down an Iraqi Scud missile in northwestern Kuwait on Friday.
Air raid sirens sounded in Kuwait City at around 1005 GMT, but the all-clear was sounded shortly afterward.

"It was a Scud but Patriots hit the Scud," a defense ministry official said.

Iraq fired several missiles towards Kuwait on Thursday, mostly towards U.S. and British rear positions in the north, a British military spokesman said earlier on Friday.

Originally reported as being Scud missiles, Israel defense officials estimated that the missiles were in fact Frog missiles, which have a much shorter range and, unlike the Scud, are not proscribed weapons.

In the war zone, one convoy from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force was targeted by Iraqi rockets and small-arms fire just after it crossed over the border from Kuwait, according to a BBC reporter with the unit. Another Marine unit, the 7th Infantry's 3rd Battalion, had to delay its foray into Iraq after it was reported that numerous tanks were sighted unexpectedly on the Iraqi side of the border.

The unit took small-arms and artillery fire Thursday night, and at one point a U.S. Cobra helicopter accidentally fired a missile at an American tank, injuring one soldier and forcing abandonment of the smoldering tank.

But overall, resistance to the allies was limited. Within a few hours of crossing into southern Iraq, the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit encountered 200 or more Iraqi troops seeking to surrender.

One group of 40 Iraqis marched down a two-lane road toward the Americans and gave up. They were told to lie face down on the ground, then were searched by Marines.

Soldiers from the Army's 3rd Infantry Division also crossed into Iraq and encountered several Iraqi armored personnel carriers, destroying at least three, troops reported by radio. British troops moved on the strategic al-Faw peninsula - Iraq's access point to the Persian Gulf and the site of major oil facilities.

U.S. Marines seized a portion of the main road leading from Kuwait into the southern Iraqi city of Basra, suppressing earlier resistance from Iraqi mortars and arms.

Supported by Cobra attack helicopters and howitzers, Marine tanks and armored vehicles rolled down Route 80 through the demilitarized zone between Kuwait and Iraq.

Still waiting back in Kuwait was the 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division.

U.S. said operating in west Iraq to thwart Scud attacks on Israel
A large U.S. force is operating in western Iraq in a bid to prevent any Iraqi Scud missile attacks against Israel, Channel One television reported Thursday evening.

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