U.S. unleashes ferocious aerial assault, takes port city and airfields | PostIndependent.com

U.S. unleashes ferocious aerial assault, takes port city and airfields

AP Special Correspondent
Iraqi soldiers standing together with their arms raised are silhouetted in a sky covered with black smoke as they surrender to U.S. Marines from the15th Marine Expeditionary Unit in southern Iraq Friday, March 21, 2003. The cause of black smoke is not known. (AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye)

The United States launched a ferocious, around-the-clock aerial assault on military targets in Baghdad and other cities on Friday and invading ground troops penetrated 100 miles into Iraq. Fires lit the night sky over the capital as bombs struck.

American and British troops encountered little resistance as they seized Iraq’s only port city and moved to secure southern oil fields. Other units moved into airfield complexes where Iraq was believed to have Scud missiles capable of reaching Israel.

“We’re going at it hammer and tongs,” said Capt. Mark Fox, back aboard the USS Constellation after a bombing run that was part of a widely heralded Pentagon effort to “shock and awe” the Iraqis.

Military commanders reported that two Marines were killed by enemy fire, the first coalition combat deaths in the 3-day old Operation Iraqi Freedom. One died trying to secure an oil pumping station; the other fell in the battle for Umm Qasr, the port city taken after a fight.

Iraqi troops surrendered in large numbers – some so eagerly that they turned themselves in to journalists accompanying American forces. But the regime gave no clear sign of quitting.

Asked whether Iraqis plan a counterattack, Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf said, “Our leadership and our armed forces will decide this, in what guarantees the defeat of those mercenaries, God willing.”

“This criminal (Bush) in the White House is a stupid criminal,” he added.

There was continued debate among U.S. intelligence officials over the fate of Saddam, and whether he had been wounded or even killed in a Wednesday night strike on a building in the capital of Baghdad.

Whether Saddam was alive or not, U.S. intelligence officials said the Iraqi command and control system was in disarray, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said, “The regime is starting to lose control of their country.”

The aerial onslaught was designed to accelerate that.

The U.S. Central Command, which is running the war, said the targets included military command and control installations and buildings in and around Baghdad, as well as targets in the northern cities of Mosul, Kirkuk and Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown.

One senior defense official said U.S. and British warplanes flying from more than 30 bases would fly about 1,000 strike missions during the first 24 hours of the accelerated campaign. Plans called for the launch of nearly 1,000 Tomahawk cruise missiles from the Persian Gulf and Red Sea.

After weeks of delay, Turkey relented and agreed to let combat aircraft fly over their territory. Even so, top administration officials publicly warned the Turkish government not to expand its existing presence of troops into northern Iraq.

Explosions shook downtown Baghdad as cruise missiles found their targets and warplanes dropped bombs over the capital city.

Fires raged inside Saddam Hussein’s Old Palace compound and thick smoke enveloped the Iraqi capital.

In Washington, President Bush said, “We’re making progress” toward the goal of liberating Iraq, and he sent lawmakers formal notification of his decision to send troops into combat.

Anti-war sentiment flared in the United States, major European cities and across the Middle East.

Police clashed with thousands of anti-war demonstrators trying to storm the U.S. Embassy in Yemen, leaving a policeman and two protesters dead amid a barrage of bullets, rocks, water cannons and tear gas canisters.

In the United States, more than 80 people were arrested in San Francisco. Another two dozen were taken into custody near the White House for blocking traffic.

In Iraq, the government-run news agency said Saddam had decreed that any Iraqi who kills an enemy soldier would get a reward equivalent to $14,000. The reward for capturing an enemy solider was put at $28,000.

But that was more bluster than bounty, as most Iraqi units offered no resistance, and those that did were overwhelmed by American and British troops and their high-tech weaponry.

In the southern town of Safwan, Marines hauled down giant street portraits of Saddam, and some local residents joined Maj. David Gurfein in a cheer. “Iraqi! Iraqis! Iraqis,” he yelled, pumping his fist in the air.

Fighting was stiffer in Iraq’s only port city, but Adm. Michael Boyce, chief of the British defense staff, declared, “Umm Qasr has been overwhelmed by the U.S. Marines and now is in coalition hands.” He added that troops were also moving toward Al Basra, southern Iraq’s largest city.

Boyce said British forces in the area were dealing with “significant numbers” of Iraqi troops who had surrendered, but offered no estimate of the numbers.

One military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said U.S. Navy SEAL commandos took control of two terminals in the Persian Gulf where Iraqi oil can be loaded onto huge tanker ships. At least one of the terminals contained explosives that had not yet been wired for detonation, the official said.

Not far away, Australian forces intercepted an Iraqi patrol boat filled with sea mines and other equipment.

Control of Umm Qasr, located along the Kuwait border about 290 miles southeast of Baghdad, gives U.S. and British forces access to a port for military and humanitarian supplies and speeds the clearing of Iraqi resistance in the south.

Its capture also produced a minor controversy. American troops who raised the Stars and Stripes over the city were quickly ordered to take it down, in compliance with Bush’s oft-stated statement that Americans are fighting in Iraq as liberators, not conquerers.

Pentagon officials have long planned for an attack they called “shock and awe.”

They held off for two nights, first because Bush ordered the opening strike Wednesday night against Saddam and then because officials hoped Iraqi capitulation would make it unnecessary.

Even with the war continuing, diplomatic jockeying broke out over its aftermath.

French President Jacques Chirac, a vocal opponent of the war, said he would veto any United Nations Security Council resolution that would allow the United States and Britain to administer a postwar Iraq.

“That would justify the war after the event,” Chirac told reporters.

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