Baltimore Sun

Baghdad pummeled by air; ground forces advance

A government building burns during heavy bombardment of Baghdad by U.S.-led forces Friday evening.
WASHINGTON - The United States unleashed a withering air assault on Iraq yesterday, striking Baghdad and targets throughout the country with 1,500 precision-guided bombs and cruise missiles in an escalating campaign to drive Saddam Hussein from power.

As waves of ground forces headed steadily north toward Baghdad, the aerial strikes shook the ground in the capital, spewing orange flames and turning night to day with white-hot explosions amid flashes of anti-aircraft fire.

At dawn today, the bombardment resumed. Fire and billowing smoke continued to fill the skies of Baghdad as more buildings in the capital were struck, according to wire reports.

At the same time, U.S. and British troops in tanks and armored vehicles were rumbling along the main road toward Basra, apparently their next main objective.

Also early today, two British Navy helicopters collided over the Persian Gulf, and seven crew members were presumed killed, officials said. The collision involved Sea King Airborne early warning helicopters and did not result from enemy fire, said a spokesman for British forces in the gulf. A search and rescue operation was under way, but no crew members were found, and all seven were presumed to have been killed.

In last night's attack, dozens of government buildings were destroyed or damaged within minutes in the center of the city, including several of Hussein's presidential palaces.

Journalists three-quarters of a mile from the explosions could feel buildings shake and the heat of the blast on their faces. They watched as the Foreign Ministry and other government buildings crumbled in billows of smoke and palaces built to glorify Hussein lighted up the sky with their flames.

After a lull through the early hours of the morning, air attacks resumed at dawn. A huge explosion shook the center of the city at first light, and the sound of aircraft could be heard overhead.

But perhaps nothing showed the military might more convincingly than the sight of an entire division of Iraqi soldiers defecting near the southern city of Basra - about 8,000 men, members of Iraq's 51st division, described by U.S. forces as hungry and poorly clothed. American officials said 10,000 Iraqi soldiers had surrendered by the end of the day.

Pentagon planners had choreographed the display of military might, in part for maximum psychological impact. Eyewitnesses said the scope and power of the long-anticipated strikes far outstripped the intensity of the American air war over Baghdad in the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

"I was totally awed. ... I've never, ever seen anything like that," said retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who commanded allied forces in the 1991 conflict. The general, now an NBC commentator, watched the attack play out on live television, along with millions of viewers around the world.

The U.S.-led invasion entered its third day with American ground forces continuing to push rapidly toward Baghdad, where many of Hussein's elite forces are said to be dug in.

Footage of Hussein

There was no indication that Hussein's regime had any intention of giving up. Iraqi television broadcast footage of Hussein meeting with aides, in an effort to dampen speculation that he had been injured or killed in U.S. bombing Wednesday. American officials continued to say they did not know for sure if he was alive.

Hussein's information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, when asked if his country planned a counter-strike, said Iraq would guarantee "the defeat of those mercenaries, God willing" and denounced Bush as "a stupid criminal."

U.S. aircraft flew 2,000 sorties as the air campaign began in earnest, including Air Force F-15E and F-16 fighters as well as Navy F-14 Tomcats and F/A-18 JHornet strike fighters launched from aircraft carriers, Pentagon officials said.

Returning U.S. airmen reported significant anti-aircraft fire, however, and U.S. and British ground forces were meeting resistance near Basra, the second-largest city.

Iraq continued to fire short-range missiles across the southern border into Kuwait, but none caused significant damage. According to the Kuwaiti military, at least one was an al-Fatah missile, among the banned weapons that U.N. inspectors had been searching for.

"We must not get too comfortable," Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a midday Pentagon briefing. "There are still many unknowns out there."

Two U.S. Marines were killed in separate incidents, the first American combat deaths of the war.

One died battling Iraqi forces in the oilfields of southern Iraq. The other was killed in fighting for the port city of Umm Qasr, now in U.S. hands.

No immediate Iraqi casualty reports were available.

In southern Iraq, U.S. Marine and Army units moved to seize control of one of the world's richest oilfields. At least seven well fires burned out of control, and crude poured onto the ground, the apparent result of Iraqi sabotage.

Preventing Hussein from destroying the oil production facilities is crucial to the Bush administration's plan to use the sale of Iraq's petroleum to pay for the reconstruction of the country.

Navy SEAL commandos took over two terminals in the Persian Gulf where Iraqi crude is loaded onto tankers, officials said.

Commanders of the main U.S. invasion force in southern Iraq reported sporadic resistance, including tank battles. American units seized three airfields in western Iraq, making them available as staging areas for the assault on Baghdad.

Targets in Iraq

An Air Force official said it was the first time that all the bombs and missiles used in a military campaign were precision-guided.

Targets included Iraqi air defense and command centers, along with other targets of political and military significance such as buildings housing Republican Guard headquarters and internal security forces. Areas that were hit included the strategic oil region of Kirkuk and other northern Iraqi cities, including Mosul and Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.

Attempts to establish a second front in northern Iraq continued to be hindered, however, by the refusal of the government of Turkey to allow American forces to use their country as a staging area for ground or air attacks.

Further complicating the U.S. effort was the movement of additional Turkish troops into Iraq. Turkey added 1,000 troops to its military presence there, and the government said it would send more to prevent Iraqi Kurds from creating an independent state.

"We don't see any need for any Turkish incursions into northern Iraq," said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. But Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul insisted that his country was determined to deploy in a large force.

U.S. officials said the air attack was launched from 30 bases in five countries. Some bombers came from as far away as Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, a 34-hour round-trip flight, as well as bases in Great Britain and the Indian Ocean. U.S. vessels in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea also took part.

Though the first U.S. bombs were dropped Wednesday on Baghdad, the full force of the American air war didn't begin in Iraq until about 8:30 p.m. yesterday (12:30 p.m. EST).

Shock waves and ear-splitting explosions ripped through the city as missiles slammed into many of the government buildings that stretch for several miles along the Tigris River in the center of the city. At one point, a mushroom-shaped cloud, the apparent result of a 2,000-pound conventional bomb, rose into the air.

Hundreds of cruise missiles and high-tech "smart" bombs rained down on dozens of structures that house various government ministries, military and intelligence centers and the headquarters of Hussein's Baath Party.

Earlier in the day, the Iraqi leadership seemed to refuse to acknowledge the enormity of what might await them.

Mohammed Diab Al-Ahmed, the minister of the interior, talked to journalists as he held a short-stock, silver-plated Kalashnikov automatic rifle, according to a Newsday reporter in Baghdad. He wore a khaki vest that held four clips for the Kalashnikov, along with a large knife.

"Maybe they will enter Umm Qasr and Basra," Al-Ahmed told the reporters, "but how will they enter Baghdad? It will be a big oven for them. They can penetrate our borders, but they cannot reach Baghdad. They will try to pull our army and troops out, but we are well aware of their plans, and they will fail."

In contrast with the bombing of Baghdad during the 1991 gulf war, there was no destruction of basic utilities, and electric power and water supplies continued to flow to the city's 5 million residents.

'No comparison'

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld boasted that there was "no comparison" between the U.S. bombing of Baghdad and the saturation air campaigns of European cities during World War II.

Rumsfeld described as historic the live broadcasts by hundreds of journalists accompanying frontline U.S. troops into battle. "We're having a conflict at a time in our history when we have 24-hours-a-day television, radio, media, Internet, and more people in the world have access to what is taking place," he said.

As if to underscore a central goal of the Bush administration's public-relations strategy, camera crews who entered Iraq with U.S. troops beamed back video of jubilant Iraqi citizens dancing in the streets and helping tear down oversized portraits of Hussein as the southern town of Safwan fell to the American invaders.

Live scenes were also shown of U.S. armored columns rolling through the southern Iraq desert, sending up dusty plumes of sand as they headed toward a potential showdown with Hussein's forces further north.

Bush and other administration officials in Washington said they were pleased with the progress of the war effort.

Hussein's "regime is starting to lose control of their country," Rumsfeld said. The ability of Iraq's military to communicate with its forces, he added, "is slipping away."

Public opinion surveys showed strong initial support for the war. By a margin of 76 to 20, Americans said they approved of Bush's decision to attack Iraq, according to a Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll conducted Thursday.