- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 26 (UPI) — Around 1,000 U.S. Army paratroopers have landed in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, the leading edge of what is expected to be the northern front in the war on Saddam Hussein, a military official said Wednesday.

Earlier Wednesday, media embedded with the U.S. military reported that a large column of Iraqi armor perhaps as many as a 1,000 strong was moving south from Baghdad toward Najaf and the U.S. 7th Cavalry of the 3rd Infantry Division. But military officials downplayed the reports.

"We've not seen any significant movements of the types of forces you described from in and around Baghdad. There have been some local positioning," said U.S. Central Command spokesman Army Brig Gen. Vincent Brooks in Doha, Qatar.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers said that any movements were significantly smaller than reported.

"They are being engaged as we find them," he told reporters after briefing Congress on the war in a classified session with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

At the Pentagon, Joint Staff Vice Director of Operations Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal was slightly more obtuse.

"We wouldn't confirm their movements, but we watch wherever they go," he said. "What we would say is, where they want to come and we have to fight, that's what we'll do."

Press reports also suggest about 100 Iraqi vehicles are moving south down the Al Faw peninsula from Basra toward the port city of Umm Qasr, which British forces claim is now under their control. U.S. aircraft were reported to have attacked and fractured the column.

If the reports of a northern column are accurate, it would be a tremendously risky proposition for Iraqi forces unless they are completely obscured by sandstorms. The United States military expects to debut in this war a new precision tank-killing bomb called the Sensor Fused Weapon. Each bomb, which can be dropped from a host of fighters and bombers, has 40 individual heat-seeking projectiles and is designed precisely to attack tanks and armored vehicles in a column or battle formation.

The newly inserted paratroopers, several hundred special operations forces, have already been operating in northern Iraq. Tuesday night they called in a bombing mission on the ruling Baath Party headquarters in As Samawa, destroying it.

A Kurdish military source said Wednesday that coalition warplanes have been striking Iraqi positions in the northern part of the country. The source, connected with the Kurdistan Democratic Party, known as the KDP, told United Press International U.S. warplanes raided Iraqi military positions south of the city of Arbil, some 190 miles (300 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad, and on a 25-mile (40-kilometer) front linking Arbil to Kirkuk.

Kirkuk and Mosul, key cities in northern Iraq, are oil-rich centers on the periphery of the Kurdish enclave that lies near the border with Turkey and Iran. The Kurds have enjoyed virtual autonomy there in the last decade under the protection of the U.S. and British-enforced no-fly zone. Two main Kurdish parties, the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, control most of the enclave.

Othman Hamah Ali, a resident of the Kurdish city of Dahouk, said in a telephone contact that the coalition warplanes also raided the areas of Faida and Saddam Dam, located between his city and Mosul.

In addition, a PUK source reported coalition bombardment that targeted Iraqi forces in Jabal Kallan, Naft Khana and other areas located near Halwan bridge in the province of Khankeen, 55 miles (90 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad.

Witnesses told UPI that Iraqi soldiers in several of the positions appeared disturbed and were avoiding staying in their camps.

Pentagon and military officials are investigating whether a bomb hit a civilian marketplace in the Shahab neighborhood in Baghdad but said the area has never been targeted since the beginning of the war.

However, U.S. Central Command said Wednesday it could have hit civilian homes elsewhere in Baghdad when it was bombing nine surface-to-surface missile sites, most of which were placed within 300 feet of private homes.

"While the coalition goes to great lengths to avoid injury to civilians and damage to civilian facilities, in some cases such damage is unavoidable when the regime places military weapons near civilian areas," Central Command stated Wednesday.

They suggested a more likely scenario was an Iraqi air-defense missile falling back to earth.

Iraqi officials claimed Wednesday 14 people died in the bombing.

"Coalition forces did not target a marketplace, nor were any bombs or missiles dropped or fired in the district," said McChrystal at a Pentagon briefing. "We know for a fact that something landed in the Shahab district, but we don't know for a fact whether it was U.S. or Iraqi."

A senior military official said the area has never been targeted but it is possible a missile went awry. However, he said, cruise missiles are wired not to explode if they miss targets by a large enough distance so he said the Pentagon is reserving judgment. It can take 24 to 48 hours to get satellite photos of bombed areas, he said.

Brooks briefing reporters Wednesday in Qatar vigorously defended the American targeting record and said Iraqi tactics are putting civilians at risk, not U.S. bombs.

"I don't accept the premise … that the civilians have been killed by coalition bombs. I just don't accept that. What we have seen over the last several days is Iraqi citizens being marched out in front of irregular formations while they are firing. Iraqi civilians are being killed on the battlefield by Iraqis. I can't make that point more strongly than I've just done it," he said.

The coalition has fired more than 600 Tomahawk cruise missiles and dropped more than 4,300 precision-guided weapons, according to the Pentagon.

Elements of the 3rd division and U.S. Marines are nearing the Medina division of the Republican Guard. The ground battle is close at hand a senior military official predicted Wednesday and its start will likely be determined by visual clarity on the battlefield. Tank-killing attack helicopters and scout helicopters have been seriously limited by a massive sandstorm.

The battle will be pivotal, the official said.

"If the Republican Guard turned to go, it would be over in a heart beat," he said.

The leading edge of U.S. forces has pushed 220 miles into Iraq and more forces are coming. The 4th Infantry Division, which had been stalled at Fort Hood, Texas, when the Turkish government refused to allow it access to a base on the northern Iraqi border, is now on its way to Kuwait. Its tanks and armored vehicles are loaded on ships that are moving through the Red Sea and into the Persian Gulf.

The rapid move toward Baghdad — and expected battle for the city — is meant to undermine and ultimately topple Saddam's regime. The "center of gravity" of his power is in Baghdad. If the city falls, so will the nation, military officials said.

That is why they are racing toward the engagement. A fast fight in the capital avoids a protracted battle elsewhere.

It is not even necessary for Baghdad to be subdued. It will be enough to give the impression that Saddam's power apparatus has crumbled beneath him to tip the scales against him in Baghdad and elsewhere.

That is one reason the coalition bombed Iraqi television Tuesday, which was back on the air Wednesday, according to reporters in the region. The state-controlled television is a legitimate "command-and-control" target, according to Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke.

A senior military official said Wednesday Saddam's military has changed its tactics since the Persian Gulf War, employing guerilla tactics against U.S. forces and "thuggery" against Iraqi civilians.

"Clearly Saddam Hussein went to school on Desert Storm and on Kosovo, both to learn how thugs can control a population and how Americans attack," the official said. "So they are a learning adversary, they have adapted and changed. But we are also learning."

McChrystal said the thousands of irregular fighters battling and harassing U.S. forces are likely Baath party members, Fedayeen paramilitary fighters and some Special Republican Guard forces.

"The practices that have been conducted by these paramilitaries and by these others who are out there, sometimes in uniform, sometimes not in uniform, are more akin to the behaviors of global terrorists than they are to a nation. And that certainly is in our mind at this time," said Brooks.

The forces are terrorizing Iraqis that might otherwise be rising up against Saddam's regime, military officials said. They are unconcerned at the general lack of popular rebellion.

"We just spent a week telling them to stay home," the official said. "Why should we expect them to be out in the streets?"

U.S. soldiers with the 7th Cavalry battled forces presumed to be Fedayeen on Tuesday near An Najaf, destroying 30 of their vehicles and killing as many as 300. The unit lost two Abrams tanks and one Bradley Fighting Vehicle but lost no personnel. The official called the vehicle losses "mobility kills" — they were not destroyed but disabled.

Marines in An Nasiriyah captured a hospital Iraqi forces had commandeered, taking 170 prisoners and finding a cache of weapons, protective suits and nerve agent antidote.

"The conclusion is inescapable; the enemy may be planning to use such agents against us or the Iraqi people," Clarke said.

U.S. forces have not found any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons in Iraq. Neither have they found any Scud missiles.

Coalition forces are continuing to exercise caution with city fighting, hoping to avoid bloody urban combat where Fedayeen forces are holed up, but find a way to get humanitarian aid to population centers. As opportunities present themselves, coalition forces will conduct targeted raids on enemy positions.

"At some point, obviously, all of the elements have to be dealt with. As we continue to move forward, the first and primary objective, clearly, is to overturn the regime. And I believe that when the regime in fact is taken down, the motivation and the support for many of these elements will stop and, therefore, they will become less motivated and less effective. There aren't a huge number of them. If in fact elements have got to go in to do that, they can do that over time," McChrystal said.

Neither is the military planning to shore up its relatively exposed rear logistics line. McChrystal said Central Command chief Gen. Tommy Franks is satisfied with the defense of the rear.

"One of the points I'd want to make is the extent of this move and the speed, the logistics have not been interrupted. There have been some situations occur, but it has in no way endangered or cut any of the lines of communication," McChrystal said. "We're comfortable that our commanders know exactly what they're doing and will accomplish whatever they need to and make whatever adjustments are necessary to keep security as it should be and keep the lines open."

Iraq has fired 10 short-range ballistic missiles thus far, all directed at Kuwait. Patriot missiles have intercepted seven; two fell in unpopulated areas in the desert; and one landed in the Persian Gulf.

As of Wednesday, the United States held around 4,500 Iraqi prisoners.

Iraq holds seven U.S. prisoners of war. There have been 24 confirmed U.S. combat deaths.

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