- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2003

Thunderous explosions rang out in Baghdad Friday night as the start of a massive air campaign rained down bombs and missiles on targets in the city, and an Iraqi Kurd representative said Turkey has sent at least a small contingent of its troops into northern Iraq.

There were also reports of fresh U.S. cruise missile attacks on targets in northern Iraq early Saturday.

Several buildings in the capital city, most believed to be government complexes, sent flames and smoke billowing up into the night skyline. United Press International's reporter in Baghdad said one of the structures afire appeared to be a presidential palace of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

"Military command and control installations, structures and buildings were the targeted sites. Other cities with military sites targeted were the northern towns of Kirkuk, Mosul and Tikrit," said a statement from U.S. military headquarters in Doha, Qatar. Assessment of the strike's effectiveness is underway, it added, but gave no other details.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters shortly after the bombardment began that the weapons have "the degree of precision no one ever dreamed of in prior conflict." Iraq's leadership structure was in shambles, he added.

Rumsfeld did not comment further on the strike that targeted Saddam early Thursday and opened the military action against the country. Intelligence suggests Saddam and possibly one or both sons were in the targeted bunker but it is still unclear whether any were injured or killed.

The White House on Friday said the man in the broadcast published a few hours after the strike appeared to be Saddam — not one of the several doubles he is known to have — but added the date it was actually made may or may not have been Thursday.

The Washington Times reported Saturday that intelligence analysts remain divided over whether Saddam Hussein is dead or alive two days after a bomb and missile attack on an Iraqi leadership bunker.

"We don't know," says one U.S. official. "We just don't know."

Air raid sirens and explosions were also reported Friday night in Mosul, an oil-rich city on the periphery of the Kurdish-controlled area of northern Iraq. Kurdish security sources also told UPI Friday that 19 U.S. helicopter gunships had landed in the region to back U.S. forces set to secure Mosul and Kirkuk, another oil center just west of the Kurdish enclave.

Taking charge of the major oil centers in northern Iraq, always a primary objective for U.S.-led forces, acquired new urgency Friday as reports came in of some 30 oil wells set fire by retreating Iraqi troops.

UPI reporter Richard Tomkins, now in Iraq with the Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, of the 5th Marine Regimental Combat Team, reported billowing smoke Friday from torched wells over the al-Ramallah oil fields of southern Iraq.

The Kurdish sources said U.S. troops were gathering in the northern Iraqi Kurd enclave and are expected to invade Kirkuk and Mosul in the next 48 hours. The 19 helicopters landed at Bukrajaw airport, 8 kilometers (5 miles) west of the city of Suleimaniya, and an unidentified additional number landed an airport actually within the Kurdish area, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) east of the city of Arbil.

In Ankara, the Turkish government — apparently defying the United States — said its troops were poised to enter Northern Iraq to join others there for years as a buffer against Iraqi Kurds.

Qubad Talabani, the deputy Washington representative for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan said late Friday 1,500 Turkish troops had crossed into northern Iraq. He said an additional 8,500 troops were arrayed on the Turkish side of the border. "We are very concerned about unilateral Turkish actions," he said.

Earlier, Turkey had briefly suspended permission for U.S.-led airplanes and missiles to overfly Turkish air space after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the United States saw no need for the Turkish military to send forces inside Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.

An agreement passed by the Turkish Parliament Thursday allowed for not only overflight permission but also for the movement of Turkish forces into northern Iraq — an attempt to stem fears in Ankara that the two main Kurdish parties in the area might declare an independent state, and thus re-ignite unrest among Turkey's own Kurdish population.

But the move was not welcomed in Washington. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the United States had told Ankara, "it would be notably unhelpful if (the Turkish army) went into the north in large numbers."

Meanwhile in western Iraq, a small number of U.S. Special Forces seized an Iraqi airfield in western Iraq, a U.S. military official confirmed Friday.

A key city fell in southern Iraq Friday morning. Umm Qasr is Iraq's only port and its stepping-off point in the Persian Gulf for its oil exports and supply imports.

The Faw peninsula, on which Umm Qasr sits, is also in coalition hands. These sites are the entree to the critical southern oil city of Basra and will be important for moving humanitarian aid into Iraq. British forces fighting alongside U.S. Marines reportedly were within striking distance of Basra during the day Friday but were meeting resistance.

However, the commander and deputy of the Iraqi 51st Division — comprising several thousand troops and some tanks — surrendered to the Marines, according to a report Friday out of Kuwait by the New York Times and other news agencies. The 51st stood between U.S. forces and Baghdad and the surrender, if confirmed, would be the first known surrender of a large Iraqi military unit in the two-day-old operation.

In the hours leading up to the bombardment in Baghdad, Iraq's interior minister rallied the country's citizens on official television. U.S. and Britain will suffer thousands of dead in the "terrible incinerator" that is Iraq, which will crush them to death, said Mahmoud Diab al-Ahmed. He added: "Yes, blood will be spilled. But we will not be saddened because God created man to defend his honor, pride and dignity."

U.S. Central Command confirmed the first combat death of a U.S. Marine Friday in combat in southern Iraq during a battle to gain control of an oil field near Basra. A second U.S. Marine was killed in combat in Iraq on Friday at about 4 p.m. local time.

Also, early Friday local time, a U.S. CH-46 Chinook helicopter crashed en route back to Kuwait from Umm Qasr, killing all 12 of its passengers. The four U.S. Marines and eight British commandos aboard became the first casualties of the operation. A military official said the cause of crash is still under investigation but it appeared to have been a mechanical failure.

An Australian spokesman said Friday their Special Forces were operating deep inside Iraq, gathering information on enemy troops movements, identifying key military targets and implementing various missions of disruption.

"Our Special Forces task group has transitioned from the battle preparation phase and is now undertaking active operations inside Iraq," Defense spokesman Brig. Mike Hannan said. Australia has contributed an estimated 2,000 troops for use in the conflict, alongside 45,000 from Britain and over 240,000 from the United States.

The diplomatic front appeared less successful Friday, however, with French President Jacques Chirac calling the U.S.-led war against Iraq illegal and threatening to veto any fresh U.N. resolution on the post-war reconstruction of the country until the end of the conflict.

The move is likely to further strain relations between Paris and London as well as with Washington.

Earlier Friday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said it was "important" to pass a U.N. Security Council resolution "which governs not just the humanitarian situation but the post-Saddam civil authority in Iraq."

France and Russia — two prominent anti-war voices who hold veto power on the U.N. Security Council — rejected U.S. demands to expel Iraqi diplomats from its territory and close Baghdad's interest section in Paris.

War protests continued to sweep the United States and the Arab world on Friday, with most governments blaming the United States for the hostilities, although Cairo blamed the Iraqi regime.

The war began after the United States and Britain failed to get enough support at the U.N. Security Council for a resolution that authorized war. France and Russia — permanent, veto-wielding members of the body — threatened vetoes.

The impasse at the Security Council began last September when Bush told the U.N. General Assembly to confront the "grave and gathering danger" of Iraq — or stand aside as the United States acted. In November, the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved the U.S.-sponsored Resolution 1441, which authorized the return of weapons inspectors to Iraq and "serious consequences" if Baghdad failed to cooperate.

Since then, Bush repeatedly said Saddam had lied to the international community and must be disarmed with force. He said if the world body did not act against Iraq, the United States will along with a "coalition of the willing." He has maintained previous U.N. resolutions as well as the right of self defense granted him the power to go to war.

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(With reporting by Richard Tomkins with the 5th Marine Regimental Combat Team, Pamela Hess from the Pentagon, Tom Houlahan in Washington, Seva Ulman in Ankara, Turkey, Elizabeth Bryant in Paris, Gareth Harding in Brussels, Martin Walker in Kuwait City, and Hussein Hindawi in London.)

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