An all-out assault

Baghdad pummeled by air

ground forces advance

War In Iraq

March 22, 2003|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF


Thousands of Iraqi POWs, capture of port, oil fields


Nonstop bombardment expands to northern cities


In Europe, Mideast, U.S., massive crowds protest

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.

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