U.S. airborne forces seize airfield in northern Iraq

Published 7:57 am Thursday, March 27, 2003

By By DAVID ESPO AP Special Correspondent
Army airborne forces parachuted into northern Iraq on Wednesday, seizing an airfield as a prelude to opening a northern front against Saddam Hussein. British warplanes bombed an enemy convoy fleeing the besieged city of Basra in the south.
One week into the war, the possibility of a major battle loomed within 100 miles of the capital as a larger convoy -- this one made up of elite Republican Guard forces -- moved in the direction of American troops aiming for Saddam's seat of power.
Jumping from low-flying jets into the Iraqi night, an estimated 1,000 paratroopers landed near an airstrip in Kurdish-controlled territory less than 30 miles from the Turkish border.
Hundreds of miles to the south, the unchallenged bombing of Iraqi forces leaving Basra raised hopes that ground troops could soon enter the city, feared at risk for a humanitarian crisis.
The military developments unfolded as the first humanitarian delivery of supplies rolled into southern Iraq, greeted at the border by hungry children.
With American and British forces massing to the south, west and now the north of Baghdad, the Iraqi regime kept much of the news from its own people. Instead, it emphasized a claim that two American cruise missiles had killed 14 civilians in Baghdad and wounded dozens more.
For the second straight day, swirling sandstorms hampered American units. The bombing campaign was crimped, as well, but Baghdad television was knocked off the air for several hours, and explosions were heard, as well, near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in the north.
Lt. Col. Thomas Collins, spokesman for the U.S. Army Southern European Task Force, confirmed that paratroopers were on the ground, many of them elite Rangers.
American commanders had hoped to move a large force into northern Iraq from Turkey. But the parliament refused to allow that, and the parachute drop was the beginning of an alternative plan.
Harriers and Tornado jets flying out of Kuwait attacked the Iraqi convoy leaving Basra, a city of more than 1 million people in southern Iraq, according to a British military source. The source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the column included as many as 120 vehicles, tanks and other armored vehicles.
Irregular Iraqi troops have prevented British troops from entering Basra, Iraq's second-largest city and site of a reported uprising by local civilians against Saddam's defenders. International aid officials have repeatedly expressed fears of an outbreak of disease, given the interruption of power and water supplies.
Details were sketchy, as well, about Iraqi troop movements to the north. Some officials said a huge convoy of perhaps 1,000 vehicles and members of Saddam's elite Republican Guard were moving south, in the direction of Marines making their way toward the capital.
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a ''few vehicles'' were moving south toward Karbala, site of a major land battle on Tuesday. ''They're being engaged as we find them,'' he said.
U.S. officials blame the Fedayeen units for much of the resistance that has hampered the American-led advance through Iraq, accusing them of faking surrender only to shoot Americans and enforcing discipline among regular Iraqi army troops who may be less willing to fight.
One Defense Department official said commanders were surprised by the Fedayeen's capability and military commanders were changing their tactics.
Iraqi officials said 30 civilians were injured, some badly, when two American missiles landed in a residential Baghdad neighborhood of homes and small shops.
Associated Press Television News video showed bodies wrapped in plastic sheeting in the back of a pickup truck and streets that had flooded after water pipes ruptured. Flames rose above the burning buildings, mixing with smoke from fires Iraqis have lit to try to obscure targets for American combat pilots.
American military officials issued a statement saying that civilian damage was ''possible'' after an aerial attack aimed at nine Iraqi surface-to-surface missiles. ''The missiles and launchers were placed within a civilian residential area,'' it said.
The first sizable relief convoy rolled across the border toward the southern port city of Umm Qasr, laden with water, boxes of tuna, crackers, sweets and other food.
Children greeted the trucks as they rumbled into Iraq from Kuwait, including a boy of about 10 who pointed to his mouth and shouted ''Eat, eat.''
In the border town of Safwan, the arrival of a relief convoy from the Kuwait's Red Crescent Society triggered fighting among young Iraqis, some shoeless and dirty, over the white boxes of supplies.
Bush was greeted with enthusiasm by hundreds of members of the armed forces on his trip to MacDill Air Force Base, home of the U.S. Central Command.
He offered a bullish account of the war effort to date, saying U.S. and British forces ''have taken control of hundreds of square miles of territory to prevent the launch of missiles and chemical or biological weapons.''
Even so, he tempered his prepared remarks, according to one official who spoke on condition of anonymity, deleting a phrase that said the operation was ''ahead of schedule.' Bush is aware, this official said, that humanitarian supplies did not flow within the 36-hour timetable he set Sunday, and that Iraqi tactics and resistance are tougher than military planners had hoped.