U.S. resumes air assaults

Sun National Staff

WASHINGTON - U.S. and British aircraft blasted Iraqi forces dug in around Baghdad yesterday, while allied leaders held a war summit in the Maryland mountains on the progress of the week-old invasion. "However long it takes ... Saddam Hussein will be removed," President Bush said after talks at Camp David with his main ally, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain.

Bush was responding to a question about growing speculation that the war could drag on for months. Stiffer-than-expected Iraqi resistance to the initial phase of the U.S.-led invasion has led some military officials to forecast a prolonged conflict that will require the deployment of additional troops.

Removing Hussein from power "could well grow more dangerous in the coming days and weeks," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told Congress. Echoing the president, Rumsfeld said it was unclear how long the war would last.

What is likely to be the toughest fighting yet lies immediately ahead, as American forces prepare for a crucial land battle against three elite Republican Guard divisions on the outskirts of Baghdad. Improved weather conditions allowed U.S. warplanes to attack heavily fortified Iraqi positions as well as tanks, artillery and armored vehicles in a prelude to ground fighting that appears to be at least a day or two away.

Iraq's defense minister, Sultan Hashem Ahmed, told journalists in Baghdad that he expects U.S.-led forces to have the capital surrounded within the next week or so. But he warned that the invaders would face bloody, block-by-block urban fighting that could last for months if they try to capture the city of 5 million residents.

Ahmed said the resistance that American and British troops have met on their swift advance toward Baghdad, especially from paramilitary forces, is "just the start of their troubles." He said Baghdad "will be their cemetery. We shall fight them for every spot, every place they come to."

The Iraqi regime, its forces hopelessly outgunned by the U.S. and British military, wants to prolong the fighting and increase the number of casualties until world opinion forces a halt.

"There isn't going to be a cease-fire," Rumsfeld told the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee. He said later, "It will end at the point where that regime does not exist and a new regime is ready to go in its place."

U.S. military officials continue to maintain that the war is "on plan." Reported casualties remain light. The latest Pentagon count shows 28 Americans killed, 40 wounded, eight missing in action and seven held prisoner by Iraq.

A total of more than 90,000 American and British troops are inside Iraq, a number that is scheduled to grow to 225,000 over the next five weeks. Many of the most heavily fortified U.S. ground units won't be in place until mid-to-late April, however, because of delays caused by Turkey's refusal to allow American soldiers to cross their territory.

In an effort to tighten security in southern Iraq, the Pentagon is ordering 2,000 Marines from Africa into the area around Iraq's second-largest city, Basra, where British marines have been struggling to gain control for days.

There was more heavy bombing overnight in Baghdad. American air power is also targeting the area around the northern city of Tikrit, birthplace of Hussein, where another Republican Guard division is based.

Hussein made another appearance on Iraqi television, which has not yet been knocked completely off the air. The Iraqi leader was shown smiling at a meeting with members of his ruling Baath party.

Republican Guard

Elements of U.S. 101st Airborne Division rolled hundreds of miles into Iraq yesterday from neighboring Kuwait, reinforcing elements of the 3rd Infantry Division that have been running short of food, fuel and water. Front-line soldiers who have spent the past three days near the Shiite holy city of Karbala, about 50 miles from Baghdad, dug trenches to protect themselves against attacks by roving bands of Iraqi irregulars and possible artillery fire from forward units of the Republican Guard.

Military planners would like to destroy a significant portion of the Republican Guard's tanks and other armored vehicles, before ground fighting begins. The U.S. efforts, however, are complicated by Iraq's decision to position much of its equipment near civilian, religious or historically significant areas, U.S. officials say.

Under clear skies, American aircraft stepped up their attacks, using precision-guided bombs. Among the targets were communications facilities, including a telephone switching center, and surface-to-air missile sites inside Baghdad. As the attacks intensify, the risk of civilian casualties is increasing, despite the accuracy of the U.S. weaponry, because many of the targets are in residential neighborhoods.

Reports of battlefield successes - and setbacks - emerged from reporters traveling with U.S. and British units.

Near An Nasiriyah, two U.S. Marines were reported to have been critically wounded in a "friendly fire" incident between separate American units that left dozens wounded. The U.S. Central Command in Qatar would not immediately confirm the report.

Outside the town of Najaf, about 80 miles south of Baghdad, carrier-based Navy fighter jets and two B-52 bombers devastated a convoy of hundreds of Iraqi vehicles that had been moving under cover of darkness and dust-storms Wednesday night.

Airborne U.S. reconnaissance aircraft detected the Iraqi column, which contained soldiers in civilian trucks wearing uniforms similar to those worn by American soldiers. Missile-firing F-18 and F-14 Navy jets destroyed several lead vehicles, and the B-52s dropped more than 50 bombs on the rest, according to a report by David Bloom of NBC News.

After repeated denials by U.S. officials at Central Command in Qatar and at the Pentagon on Wednesday night that a large Iraqi convoy had been hit, Centcom officials confirmed the incident yesterday.

Daily briefings

Frustrated journalists in the high-tech Centcom briefing center broke into applause when an American magazine writer questioned the value of the daily briefings "at this million-dollar press center" - carried worldwide on live television - which provide little information about the war that has not already been released by the Pentagon.

Brig. Gen. Vince Brooks, deputy director of operations, answered that any information the military provides in response to questions at the briefings could be of value to the Iraqis. "You're not the only one being informed," he said.

In sharp contrast to the 1991 Persian Gulf war, when the allied commander, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, gave frequent updates on the war with vivid descriptions of the unfolding battles, Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the current commander, has stayed mostly behind the scenes.

"He's fighting a war right now," Brooks said by way of explanation.

Franks' absence from the briefings has helped feed perceptions, accurate or not, that American commanders are scrambling to rewrite their battle plans in the face of tougher than expected Iraqi resistance. Meantime, in Washington, there was no daily briefing at the Pentagon for the first time since the war began.

U.S. officials, responding to allegations that a stray American cruise missile caused at least 15 civilian deaths in a bombed-out Baghdad marketplace on Wednesday, said they might never know the cause of the incident. But they strongly hinted that it had been an Iraqi surface-to-air missile that fell back to earth, not a U.S. bomb, that caused the damage.

All U.S. weapons that had been fired into that part of Baghdad around the time of the bombing had been accounted for, they added.

'Very confusing'

British officials, meantime, sharply scaled back earlier reports that a column of up to 120 armored Iraqi vehicles had been attacked as they fled Basra. The actual number of tanks destroyed was three, said British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon, who explained that initial reports about the size of the column had been wrong.

Hoon said the situation in Basra, a city of 1.3 million where roughly half the inhabitants are without water, "remains very confused." Fighting has raged between British Marines on the outskirts of the city and the Iraqi militia known as the Fedayeen Saddam.

The militias

U.S. officials, who badly underestimated the fighting ability of these militias, estimate that there are as many 20,000 members in Iraq, many of them in heavily Shiite southern Iraq.

Rumsfeld described the militias, which are under the control of Hussein's son, Odai, as vicious "death squads." American officials report that the fedayeen had been forcing regular soldiers, at gunpoint, to rejoin army units in the Basra area that had surrendered and disbanded after the U.S. invasion began.

The fedayeen are also using woman and children as shields, American officials said, in their guerrilla-style attacks on U.S. forces along the lightly defended supply line that stretches for more than 200 miles from the Kuwait border to the southern outskirts of Baghdad.

Rumsfeld said it could take "some time" to subdue the fedayeen.

Military units resupplying front-line troops hope to bypass portions of the supply route, nicknamed "Ambush Alley," now that Iraq's second-largest airfield has been reopened by U.S. troops. The mothballed Tallil airfield just west of Nasiriyah was secured Saturday by U.S. soldiers.

It was renamed "Bush International Airport" with a makeshift sign and welcomed its first incoming flight since the 1991 gulf war, a C-130 transport plane. The U.S.-led forces can now airlift supplies there instead of going by ground from Kuwait.

Humanitarian aid

Meantime, most humanitarian relief efforts are being delayed by mine-clearing activities in the shallow ship channel at the port of Umm Qasr.

Officials said it could be at least one more day before ships laden with food, water and other necessities for Basra and surrounding area would be allowed to land.

British officials said that six well fires are burning in the vast Rumaila oilfield.

Damage to the wells and the discovery that the Iraqis had salted the area with anti-personnel and anti-tank mines mean that it could take up to three months before oil exports can resume.

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