- The Washington Times - Monday, March 24, 2003

New diplomatic fronts opened in the fight over Iraq Monday even as coalition forces closed in on Baghdad: Leaders of the Arab world requested an urgent U.N. meeting to condemn the American-led invasion, President Bush called Russian President Vladimir Putin to protest alleged sales of war equipment to Iraq, and Britain's Tony Blair reportedly planned a trip to Washington Wednesday for consultations between the two main coalition partners.

For the first time, the Bush administration put a tentative price tag on the conflict: $75 billion, a figure that Bush was expected to announce Tuesday at the Pentagon, which is leading the effort to topple Saddam and find and destroy weapons of mass destruction.

In Iraq, U.S. and British troops kept up their push toward Baghdad and what Blair said would be a "crucial" encounter with the highly trained Republican Guards. Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of coalition forces, said the allies continued to make progress, sometimes "dramatic," during the day despite resistance and reversals that he said were typical of any military campaign.

Two American Army pilots were missing in action after their Apache attack helicopter went down Monday near Baghdad while participating in an attack by up to 40 U.S. helicopter gunships on a Republican Guard facility, Franks said.

"The fate of the crew is uncertain right now," he said.

Abu Dhabi television was showing Iraqi footage of two men they claim to be the captured pilots, according to CNN. The Pentagon identified the pilots Monday as Chief Warrant Officer David S. Williams, 30, of Florida, and Chief Warrant Officer Ronald D. Young Jr., 26, of Georgia.

The Pentagon Monday identified 11 of its personnel killed in action in support of the war in Iraq, and U.S. Central Command acknowledged at least another 10 Marines killed in action near Nasiriyah Sunday.

In New York, the Arab Group at the United Nations Monday called for an emergency session of the Security Council to condemn the U.S.-led invasion, apparently in response to the Cairo meeting of the Arab League earlier in the day seeking council condemnation of the conflict.

A U.N. official told United Press International the council was not expected to take up the measure until Tuesday, in closed-door consultations, at the earliest. The group of 22 nations was sending a letter to the council president, Ambassador Mamady Traor of Guinea.

The State Department, sensitive to growing resentment and protests around the Arab world over the weekend, said the United States is working hard to ensure the war in Iraq is not seen as an Arab-American conflict.

"We've stayed in close consultations with our friends in the Arab world regarding the military conflict in Iraq and the efforts to achieve Iraqi disarmament," spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters in Washington.

In an apparent policy shift, Boucher also said the United States is trying to offer Turkey watertight assurances that would deprive Ankara of any justification for sending troops to Northern Iraq.

U.S. officials will "try to make sure that the situation in northern Iraq is handled in such a way that the need doesn't arise for Turkish forces to be there in either a coordinated or an uncoordinated fashion, so that under any conditions they wouldn't feel the need to go there," Boucher said. Turkey is worried the Kurdish population there will try to set up their own nation and foment unrest in Turkey's own Kurdish minority.

Bush called Russia's Putin about what the White House said was "credible evidence" that Russian companies sold night vision goggles, global positioning system jammers and other prohibited hardware to Iraqi officials. The White House said Putin vowed to immediately look into the matter, which it a called "disturbing" violation of U.N. sanctions.

Britain's Blair was expected to arrive Wednesday and meet with Bush at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland, the British Broadcast Corp. reported. Monday, Blair told the House of Commons that the leading edge of troops was 60 miles from Baghdad and would soon face a "crucial moment" when they would face highly trained Iraqi Republican Guards blocking the route.

He said coalition troops had taken the al-Faw peninsula and the port of Umm Qasr despite "pockets of resistance," and had secured southern oil installations and the western desert.

"Meanwhile, coalition forces, led by the American 5th Corps, are on the way to Baghdad. As we speak, they are about 60 miles south of Baghdad, near Karbala," Blair said. "It is a little way from there that they will encounter the Medina Division of the Republican Guard, who are defending the route to Baghdad."

"This will plainly be a crucial moment."

Meanwhile, coalition commanders rushed British troops from Basra back to the Rumaila oilfields near the Kuwaiti border, where Iraqi guerrilla forces had infiltrated to lay ambushes and challenge the coalition for control of the roads north.

The leading edge of the 3rd Infantry Division was reported maintaining exceptional speed toward the Iraqi capital, with arrival in the neighborhood of Baghdad imminent.

UPI's Richard Tomkins, accompanying Bravo Company of the Fifth Marines, reported Monday that the unit, engaged in a long-range penetration into the country, headed to an undisclosed destination where they expect major confrontations with Iraqi forces.

The column traveled more than 24 hours non-stop before coming to a brief rest Monday. The column of men and equipment — armored vehicles, tanks and Humvees — stretched in both directions as far as the eye could see. However, much of the area was obscured by dust and sand whipped up by heavy winds as a major sandstorm hit the area.

Franks told a briefing Monday that "our forces are operating throughout Iraq, on the ground and in the air. United Kingdom and American Marine forces are in the southern oil fields as we speak."

"Progress towards our objectives has been rapid and in some cases dramatic," he said, describing fighting so far as "sporadic resistance" that nonetheless has claimed more than a dozen U.S. soldiers killed or captured.

Saddam went on television Monday and said, "The enemy underestimated you — you heroic Iraqis."

Dressed in full military uniform and speaking calmly and without histrionics, Saddam spoke over TV from an anonymous room, flanked by an Iraqi flag and a wall plaque depicting an eagle surmounting the national arms of Iraq. Arabic-speaking experts who monitored the broadcast in Kuwait said they believed it was indeed the real Saddam despite earlier suggestions that other TV appearances had been staged by doubles.

Minutes after Saddam finished speaking, more than half a dozen explosions rocked Baghdad. Mike Gallagher, reporting for UPI from Baghdad, said he was walking through a market area when a bomb landed with a deafening blast barely 500 yards away. "Some of the shoppers ducked or ran into nearby doorways. Police and soldiers were very quickly on the scene and I was ushered away." The coalition campaign of bombs and cruise missiles has targeted government buildings and Saddam's palaces.

Sunday, Iraqi television showed videotape of five U.S. soldiers, including a woman, captured in south central Iraq, as well as the bodies of others they claimed were American. The video was broadcast by al-Jazeera satellite television.

Pentagon officials confirmed some U.S. soldiers were prisoners and that officials were working to confirm the identities of the captives and notify their families.

Bush, on his return to Washington from Camp David, said of the captives: "I expect those people to be treated humanely."

Filming prisoners of war and disseminating the tape violate the Geneva Convention prohibition of ridicule of detained soldiers. They are supposed to be moved out of harm's way, receive medical treatment, shelter and food.

Officials said the soldiers ambushed and captured were part of a maintenance company that took a wrong turn near Nasiriyah. The al-Jazeera television network Sunday aired video footage described as civilian casualties of coalition bombing of Basra, with many bodies, hospital floors covered with blood and an 8-year-old boy victim. A hospital spokesman on the video shouted: "This is a massacre. It's obvious they are all civilians."

Coalition officials said that 90 percent of the munitions used in air attacks have been "smart" weapons, which are much more likely to hit their intended targets, which U.S. officers have described as Iraqi leadership positions.

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(With reporting by Richard Tomkins with the 5th Marine Regimental Combat Team, Mike Gallagher in Baghdad, Pamela Hess from the Pentagon, Kathy Gambrell at the White House, Thomas 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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