Baghdad hammered by ferocious aerial assault

Published 6:29 am Saturday, March 22, 2003

By By DAVID ESPO AP Special Correspondent
The United States launched a ferocious, around-the-clock aerial assault on military targets in Baghdad and other cities Friday, and invading ground troops penetrated 100 miles into Iraq. The ancient capital's skyline exploded in balls of flame, leaving Saddam Hussein's Old Palace compound and other symbols of his government ablaze.
Coalition commanders accepted the surrender of the 8,000-member 51st Iraqi Infantry Division near the southern city of Basra, officials said, and U.S. and British troops encountered little resistance as they seized Iraq's only port city and moved to secure key oil fields.
After an overnight reprieve, a huge explosion shook the center of Baghdad, a city of 5 million, before dawn Saturday and aircraft could be heard overhead. A halo of smoke hung in the sky.
Units moved into western airfield complexes where Iraq was believed to have Scud missiles capable of reaching Israel, and possibly weapons of mass destruction as well.
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.''
The Iraqi regime released a video of Saddam in his uniform meeting with his son Qusai, the commander of the Republican Guard, and the defense minister, Gen. Sultan Hashim Ahmad, but it was unclear when the video was made.
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 Baghdad.
Whether or not Saddam was alive, 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 1,500 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. At the same time, however, Turkey sent 1,000 troops into northern Iraq, and the government said it would send more to prevent Iraqi Kurds from creating an independent state. The United States strongly opposes any unilateral move by Turkey into northern Iraq.
In a strike at terrorism in northern Iraq, U.S. forces fired five missiles at the base of an Islamic militant group allegedly linked to the al-Qaida network, Kurdish officials said. Washington has claimed that the group, Ansar al-Islam, connects Saddam to al-Qaida.
In Washington, President Bush said, ''We're making progress'' toward the goal of liberating Iraq. Before heading to Camp David for the weekend, Bush also 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 and Asia.
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.
Large-scale protests also occurred in San Francisco and Chicago and police took about two dozen protesters into custody near the White House.
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.
American units advancing west of the southern city of Basra secured the Rumeila field, whose daily output of 1.3 million barrels makes it Iraq's most productive.
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 helps speeds the clearing of Iraqi resistance in the south.
Pentagon officials have long planned for an attack they called ''shock and awe.''
They held off for two nights, first because Bush ordered Wednesday night's opening strike against Saddam and then because officials hoped Iraqi capitulation would make it unnecessary.