- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2003

U.S. Army paratroopers landed in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq to open a second front in the war to oust Saddam Hussein, which Iraqi officials said Wednesday had claimed the lives of 14 people in a civilian neighborhood in Baghdad.

A military official said Wednesday the newly inserted paratroopers join several hundred special operations forces already operating in northern Iraq. Tuesday night they called in a bombing mission on the ruling Ba'ath Party headquarters in As Samawa, destroying it.

The U.S. military had originally planned to open the northern front with troops from the 4th Infantry Division moving through Turkey, but on March 1 the Turkish parliament denied them permission.

In an attempt to calm U.S. and international concerns, the Turkish chief of staff, Helim Ozkuk, said Wednesday Turkey had no intention of moving into northern Iraq without an agreement with the United States. The Turks say they want to be in Iraq to deal with an expected influx of refugees.

Earlier Wednesday, media embedded with the U.S. military reported that a large column of Iraqi armor perhaps as many as 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 wouldn't confirm their movements, but we watch wherever they go," Joint Staff Vice Director of Operations Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said at the Pentagon. "What we would say is, where they want to come and we have to fight, that's what we'll do."

In the capital itself, Iraqi authorities said at least 14 civilians were killed in a U.S. strike on a marketplace in the residential Shahab district.

U.S. officials denied that they had targeted the market, but left open the possibility that ordinance — either from U.S.-led forces, or from Iraqi air defense — might have gone astray. They said they were investigating.

"Coalition forces did not target a marketplace, nor were any bombs or missiles dropped or fired in the district," McChrystal said. "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."

Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf said more than 30 people were injured by two separate blasts in Shahab. He accused the United States of using cluster bombs, a charge denied by the CENTCOM spokesman, U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks.

Meanwhile, British troops of the 7th Armored Brigade — who earned the nickname Desert Rats during World War II — were settling in around Basra where their path into the city was blocked by Iraqi irregulars. An uprising by some of the 1.5 million residents against Saddam's militias — first reported by British military intelligence — was said to be continuing Wednesday, although there was no independent confirmation.

A British Broadcasting Corp. reporter embedded with British marines south of Basra said that a column of Iraqi armor, as many as 120 vehicles strong, had emerged from the city earlier in the day, and was being attacked by aircraft and artillery.

Initially, British forces had intended to stay out of Basra, hoping that a combination of revolts by the local Shiite population against the Sunni-dominated regime, and defections by demoralized Iraqi soldiers would deliver the city to them without the need for potentially bloody urban warfare. But a looming humanitarian catastrophe — most of the city's residents have been without fresh water or electricity since Friday — forced a change of plan.

Elsewhere in the south, with the war in its seventh day, British army sources said underwater experts had cleared mines in the nearby port of Umm Qasr and it was ready to receive shipments of humanitarian aid.

Away from the theatre itself, Washington, the United Nations and the European Union were thinking beyond the collapse of the Saddam regime to Iraq's recovery and reconstruction. Humanitarian aid and the question of who is going to supply what is the subject of intense negotiation at the United Nations and at EU headquarters in Brussels.

Diplomatic sources said reconstruction — and the United Nation's role in it — will be a major issue in talks between President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who arrived in the United States Wednesday for a two-day stay at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md.

On the battle front, elements of the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment moving along the Euphrates River to secure its bridges and protect the army's long line of supply encountered resistance from Iraqi forces and militia near the town of An Najaf. They lost three tanks, a Bradley fighting vehicle and some trucks.

Witness reports said one Abrams tank plunged into a gulch when a temporary bridge thrown across by U.S. engineers collapsed under its 70-ton weight. Two other tanks were knocked out by enemy fire. Army sources said hundreds of Iraqis were killed in the battle that began Monday, with a reprise Tuesday.

Military analysts were puzzled that the bridges across the Euphrates had not been destroyed — an apparent tactical error on the part of the Iraqis. However, reports say the Iraqis were placing explosive on the bridges over the Tigris River in Baghdad, ready to blow them up should coalition troops force their way into the city.

Another surprise, according to U.S. sources, has been the unexpected effectiveness of the Iraqi militias, principally the Fedayeen. Fighting more as guerrillas than military units, the Fedayeen were the backbone of resistance in Umm Qasr, Basra and Najaf. In Basra, they were reported to have fired on civilians demonstrating against Saddam.

U.S. officials said that the discovery of chemical suits hidden in a hospital near Nasiriyah, which was being used as a base by 170 of the irregulars was a clear sign that Iraqi forces were preparing to use nerve agents or other chemical weapons against the U.S.-led coalition.

The advancing coalition force also came into initial contact with Baghdad's outer ring of defenses. The 3rd Infantry Division near Karbala had intermittent contact with the Republican Guards Medina Division, which is defending one of the major approaches to the city. The 3rd Infantry was supported by U.S. airstrikes despite the sandstorm, which had a devastating effect on ground visibility.

But U.S. Central Command spokesman Army Brig Gen. Vincent Brooks said in Doha, Qatar, that the coalition force had been "comfortable" fighting in the sandstorm. "We can operate day and night, in good weather and bad weather," Brooks said. Some equipment was affected but the sandstorms did not force the coalition to change any of its fighting plans.

Brooks said around 4,000 Iraqi prisoners of war were now in coalition hands. At the same time coalition losses were 23 U.S. personnel dead or missing, and seven captured, and 20 British soldiers dead, and two in enemy hands.

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(With reporting by Pamela Hess from the Pentagon, Richard Tomkins with the 5th Marine Regimental Combat Team, Gassan al-Khadi in Baghdad, Kathy Gambrell at the White House, Seva Ulman in Ankara, Turkey, Martin Walker in Kuwait City, and Hussein Hindawi in London.)

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