- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 21 (UPI) — The Southern Iraqi oil city of Basra remained a battleground as hundreds of U.S. aircraft began dropping bombs and launching missiles at several hundred Iraqi military targets Friday, the leading edge of the furious air assault intended to "shock and awe" the enemy into surrender, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers said Friday.

Saddam Hussein is losing control of his country, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, after three days of ground and air attacks that have yielded significant gains for the force of about 300,000 steadily moving toward Baghdad.

"The confusion of Iraqi officials is growing. Their ability to see what is happening on the battlefield, to communicate with their forces and to control their country is slipping away. They're beginning to realize, I suspect that the regime is history," Rumsfeld said.

Iraqi resistance has been "sporadic," according to Myers.

"There have been tank battles. Generally limited, but there has been some fighting," he said.

The air strikes come as ground forces have already made a 100-mile push into Iraqi territory. Special Forces have seized an oil field in Western Iraq and are operating in Northern Iraq. Navy SEALS have seized two offshore gas-oil terminals. The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force now has control of the port city of Umm Qasr, and coalition forces have control of the entire Al Faw peninsula, Iraq's sole access to the sea. These sites are the entre to the critical southern oil city of Basra and will be important for moving humanitarian aid into Iraq.

Coalition forces have control over a "non-trivial" number of the 1,000 oil wells in the southern Rumaylah fields with around 10 of them currently ablaze. Troops are battling the fires, some of which were set before the U.S. ground offensive got underway Thursday.

"These fields, if we're successful, should be secured sometime later today, and they will be a great resource for the Iraqi people as they build a free society," Myers said.

The city of Basra remains a battleground, with at least one Marine killed in the fight Friday. Later Friday, a second Marine was killed while fighting Iraqi forces near the port of Umm Qasr. Four U.S. Marines and eight British commandos were killed early Friday when their CH-46 crashed in Kuwait as they returned from a mission in Umm Qasr.

Australian navy forces have detained three Iraqi tugboats and a barge loaded with 130 mines, weapons and military uniforms in the Khor Abdullah waterway to the Persian Gulf.

U.S. and British forces launched around 70 $1 million Tomahawk cruise missiles in the first three days of conflict, according to Myers. Combat aircraft flew more than 1,000 sorties in the same time period. Two stealthy F-117 fighter aircraft employed new 2,000-pound "bunker buster" bombs with delayed fuses that allow the missiles to burrow underground before exploding.

Several hundred Iraqi soldiers have surrendered to U.S. forces and many more have abandoned their positions, Rumsfeld said.

"A lot of people just leave and melt into the countryside," he said.

He confirmed American commanders are negotiating with individual Iraqi units for their surrender "for the most part" outside of Baghdad. The most intractable soldiers, the special security forces, are dispersed throughout Baghdad.

Military officials in Kuwait told reporters Friday the division commander and deputy of the 51st Iraqi Infantry Division surrendered Friday night to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

The war kicked off with a surprise massive strike on a residence in Southeastern Baghdad around 10 pm EST March 19 where "senior Iraqi leadership" had gathered. The intended target was Saddam — an Iraqi official told reporters Friday it was one of his personal complexes — but it is unclear whether he was injured or killed in the attack.

"There's no question but that the strike on that leadership headquarters was successful. We have photographs of what took place. The question is, what was in there?" Rumsfeld said.

A technical analysis of the videotape of Saddam released Wednesday by Iraq has determined that it was the Iraqi dictator, but it is unclear whether it was pre-recorded and therefore is not a good indication if he is alive.

The Wednesday air attack also targeted an intelligence service headquarters in Baghdad and a Republican Guard facility. Aircraft also bombed air defense sites, radar communication sites in Western Iraq and near Basra, and artillery sites near Al-Faw and Al Zabar, and surface-to-surface missiles in the south. Aircraft also inserted special operations forces throughout Western and Southern Iraq to conduct reconnaissance operations and destroy Iraqi observation posts on the border where U.S. troops would soon cross.

The ground attack began around 10 p.m. Thursday local time, when the 3rd Infantry Division rolled into Southern Iraq.

The air campaign continued with the launch of more than 20 Tomahawks at eight targets in Baghdad, including several special security organization sites. The SSO protects Iraqi leaderships. Coalition ships launched 10 Tomahawks at Republican Guard targets in Kirkuk in Northern Iraq, near the oil fields there.

Baghdad came under a much larger assault Friday around 9 p.m. local time, with massive explosions and the resulting fires carried live on television. Despite the dramatic images, the military is carefully pinpointing military targets only, Rumsfeld said.

"While it has to be a terribly unpleasant circumstance, (the residents of Baghdad) will have an opportunity to see the precision with which we're going about this task, and that the targets are military targets, and that … this is not an attack on the Iraqi people," he said. "It is an enormous impressive effort, humane (targeting) effort to do what is necessary to reduce this threat against our country and that region, and to eliminate a regime that has killed hundreds of thousands of human beings."

The campaign is proceeding largely according to plan but Turkey's refusal to provide basing and reluctance to allow overflight rights for U.S. forces is complicating the northern front of the war. Turkey is now planning on sending its own forces into Northern Iraq to halt the flow of refugees, but could end up drawn into battle against Kurdish forces.

The United States has asked Turkey not to do move its forces into the area.

"You can be certain that we have advised the Turkish government and the Turkish armed forces that it would be notably unhelpful if they went into the north in large numbers," Rumsfeld said.

Original planning envisioned more than 60,000 U.S. soldiers, many form the 4th Infantry Division out of Ft. Hood, Texas, to flow into Northern Iraq to seize the Kirkuk oil fields and open a second front on Iraqi forces, and to keep Kurdish and Turkish forces from fighting each other. Now it is the battleground for a small number of Special Forces soldiers who are working with Iraqi opposition forces to protect the oil fields and begin to engage the Iraqis.

Rumsfeld seems to have grown impatient with the recalcitrant NATO ally. He noted there are other ways to get U.S. troops into Northern Iraq and the United States is employing them.

"Over a period of … three or four months now that these discussions have been going on. My impression is that the discussions are pretty much towards an end," Rumsfeld said.

"We're still hoping for (over flight), but we're not counting on that, and we have other ways of inserting those forces," Myers added.

Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf told reporters in Baghdad that Saddam's family house was hit but "God protected his family."

Al-Sahhaf strongly denied that the U.S.-British forces entered the area of Umm Qasar, saying it is "silly and a lie" and that he just called the Umm Qasar governor who refuted the U.S. claims.

"It's an attack and retreat battle. How would they enter Baghdad? It will be their crematory," he said. "Iraq's territories are vast and one or two tanks could enter and be filmed. The Iraqi Army will fight them and will kill them in the land of Iraq."

CNN reported that U.S Special Forces have taken two western airfields known as H2 and H3, offering a potential landing zone and an air base for forces to continue their push into Baghdad. Iraq used them in 1991 as Scud launching pad sites for the 39 missiles lobbed into Israel.

H2 and H3 were home to chemical munitions bunkers and missiles prior to the 1991 Gulf War.

A military official said the cause of the CH-46 crash in Kuwait early Friday is still under investigation but it seems to have been a mechanical failure.

An American Special Forces helicopter crashed Thursday in the Iraqi desert. There were no casualties, according to the U.S. military, and the helicopter was destroyed by a bomb where it lay to prevent it from falling in to Iraqi hands.

Iraq claims it shot down both helicopters.

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