WASHINGTON - Fast-moving American invasion forces bore down on Baghdad yesterday, as U.S. missiles thundered into Saddam Hussein's palaces and offices for a second straight day, turning still more of them into so many piles of rubble.
Across the vast Iraqi desert, U.S. convoys roared virtually unimpeded along the road to Baghdad, crossing the Euphrates River and moving to within 100 miles of the capital. American troops are moving at a rapid clip, military officials said, roughly four times faster than allied forces were able to maneuver in the 1991 Persian Gulf war, when they were slowed by opposition from Iraq's army.
When they needed it, ground forces summoned firepower from above. U.S. Cobra helicopters fired missiles at 20 Iraqi tanks defending bridges outside the port of Basra. The U.S.-led coalition seized the international airport, located northwest of Basra, but had not yet gained control of Iraq's second-largest city.
Speed was a priority; unprofitable engagement was avoided. The troops stayed away from a street fight when they could. As the coalition commander, U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks, put it yesterday, "This is about liberation, and not about occupation."
Though U.S. forces said earlier they had secured the nearby port town of Umm Qasr, another day of fighting was reported there. Gaining control of the town was considered necessary to allow humanitarian aid supplies to be shipped into Iraq.
Just across the border in Kuwait, one of the most damaging attacks on American forces thus far may have been self-inflicted. Fourteen members of the 101st Airborne Division were wounded by grenade fragments in an assault on a command tent at Camp Pennsylvania. One of the men was reported to have died.
A soldier from the 101st was detained by military police, and a spokesman for the unit said a criminal investigation had been launched into the incident.
Overall, U.S. casualties were described as light, though the number of Americans killed since the war began four days ago reached seven when two British helicopters collided over the Persian Gulf early in the day. A U.S. Navy lieutenant was among seven on board killed in the crash, which British authorities said was not the result of enemy fire.
Iraqi government officials said that seven people had died in the U.S. airstrikes on Baghdad in the past two days, as nearly every U.S. warplane in the region attacked the capital city. The International Committee of the Red Cross said that at least 100 people were injured in the bombing. The Arab TV station al-Jazeera reported that 50 people had been wounded in the fighting in Basra.
At least five people were killed in a car-bombing near the Iraq-Iran border, apparently in retaliation for a U.S. cruise missile strike Friday night against facilities of the Ansar al-Islam, which Americans say is a terrorist organization connected to al-Qaida.
A cameraman for Australian television was among the dead in that attack, and elsewhere in Iraq a three-man crew from Britain's ITN television network was missing and presumed dead. It was a dangerous day for those reporting the war: Other groups of reporters found themselves under fire, and three were reported hiding, awaiting rescue.
The car bombing occurred after about 40 cruise missiles hit targets that included what U.S. sources called a factory that produces the poison ricin.
In a possible preview of the coming battle for Baghdad, new elements of the U.S. war-fighting strategy began to emerge from the battles in Basra, near the Persian Gulf coast.
American commanders are attempting to cordon off the city, rather than occupy it, in an effort to avoid the deadly risks of urban combat. The goal is to gain control over population centers without actually sending U.S. soldiers into crowded areas where snipers would find them easy targets.
"Our intent is not to move through and create military confrontations in that city," General Franks said. "Rather, we expect that we'll work with Basra and the citizens in Basra."
Setting up bases
That strategy of sealing off cities and towns was evident, as well, in Nasiriya, about 90 miles northwest of Basra, which was cordoned off by American ground forces as they rolled past on their way to Baghdad. As U.S. troops move northward, and expand their control of Iraq, Army units are setting up mini-bases, known as lodgements, in the desert. Apache Longbow helicopters and other weapons are being moved from Kuwait into these temporary bases, where they can be used to attack targets throughout the country.
Franks, who briefed reporters in Qatar, said American troops are performing "magnificently" and that the fighting has gone according to plan.
But like every other senior U.S. official, from President Bush on down, who has spoken publicly about the war in recent days, Franks warned against overconfidence.
"There may well be tough days ahead," the four-star general cautioned.
In one setback in the plan to gain control over Iraq, the United States had been unable to launch a simultaneous northern offensive because of Turkey's refusal to allow the movement of troops and equipment through its territory into northern Iraq.
Yesterday, reporters in northern Iraq were quoting Kurdish officials as saying that U.S. troops would be opening a front there, arriving by air at airfields in the Kurdish-controlled region within a few days.
Otherwise, the 4th Infantry Division would have had to move its equipment by ship through the Red Sea and around the Arabian Peninsula, which would take at least 10 to 12 days.
Turkish officials denied reports that they had moved 1,000 additional soldiers across the northern Iraqi border. The troop movements have raised fears that Turkey might use the war in Iraq as an opportunity to launch an offensive against Kurds in the nothern part of Iraq.
Franks said the number of troops involved was "very light. ... We see them move in and out of Turkey" into Iraq. The general said there was "continuing discussion" with the government in Ankara about how much Turkish military activity in the area would be allowed.
In Baghdad, cruise-missile and bomber strikes were merciless, attacking virtually around the clock. Hundreds of precision-guided munitions rained on targets, which included Republican Guard and intelligence service buildings.
However, the overall ferocity of the aerial attacks was less intense than the thunderous display of force on the opening night of the air war.
Oil fires, apparently set deliberately by Iraqi defenders, spewed clouds of dense smoke into the sky over Baghdad, possibly in an attempt to complicate U.S. efforts to gauge the effectiveness of the first waves of bombing or impede further attacks. Once again Iraq had apparently underestimated its adversary: American missiles and bombs can easily find their way through such obstacles.
According to U.S. officials, between 1,000 and 2,000 Iraqi soldiers had been taken prisoner. The number does not include those who laid down their arms and returned to their families.
However, there were reports from Umm Qasr that some of those who had abandoned their military units and returned to the civilian population were firing on British troops who had been left behind to oversee the town.
The rich Rumaila oilfield of southern Iraq has been brought under American control without major damage, U.S. officials said. Only about nine of the field's 500 wells, representing about one-third of Iraq's total number of wells, had been set ablaze, they said.
Officials said that the wells were seized before the Iraqis were able to sabotage them.
According to the U.S. Central Command in Qatar, the U.S. special forces that secured Iraq's oil terminals and off-shore drilling platforms found unused explosives that, they said, were apparently there to be used to blow them up, rather than to let them fall into American hands.
Pentagon officials said they had no evidence that Iraq's other major oilfield, in the Kirkuk region north of Baghdad, had been damaged. Those fields are still in Iraqi hands.
President Bush, who is spending the weekend at Camp David in Maryland, held a meeting with his war advisers. American officials said that negotiations are continuing with senior Iraqi officials in an effort to oust Hussein's regime without a bloody showdown in Baghdad.
Bush also spoke by telephone with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Public opinion surveys showed a sharp increase in Blair's poll numbers, with a majority of the public now supporting his handling of the Iraq crisis.
There has been a similar jump in public support for Bush, which typically occurs whenever U.S. forces go into battle.
However, anti-war protests are continuing around the world. One of the largest demonstrations held since the start of the war took place in New York City, where a crowd estimated at upward of 100,000 marched through the streets.
Sun staff writer Tom Bowman contributed to this article.