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U.s. Pummels Baghdad As Troops Push Toward City

The capital trembles under 'shock and awe' bombing aimed at official sites. Ground forces meet little resistance, but two Marines die in combat.

March 22, 2003|John Daniszewski and Esther Schrader | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — The United States launched an intense and long-threatened aerial assault against Iraq on Friday, raining hundreds of bombs and cruise missiles on the capital and other places deemed crucial to President Saddam Hussein's regime.

The airstrikes, which the military had dubbed a campaign of "shock and awe," were launched as tens of thousands of heavily armed U.S. and British ground troops raced across the Iraqi desert in a linear dust cloud pointed at Baghdad.

Although resistance was only sporadic, the United States suffered its first combat casualties of the war when two Marines were killed in separate firefights in southern Iraq, not far from the Kuwaiti border.

Early today, two British Sea King helicopters collided over the Persian Gulf, killing all seven crew members, including an American naval officer, British military sources said in Doha, Qatar.

In Baghdad, explosions shook the capital continuously for more than two hours, beginning just after nightfall and lighting the sky with billowing plumes of fire, smoke and debris.

Among the sites hit were Hussein's presidential palace compound, the headquarters of the Special Security Organization and barracks of the Republican Guard. The number of casualties was not immediately known.

Senior U.S. officials said an even heavier bombardment was planned for today. At dawn, three big explosions shook Baghdad.

There was no immediate indication that Friday's attack had dislodged the Iraqi leadership, but there were hints of cracks.

In the south, the Iraqi army's entire 51st Mechanized Division, consisting of 8,000 troops, surrendered to U.S. Marines, defense officials said, and hundreds of other soldiers have given themselves up elsewhere.

Some Iraqi commanders reportedly have abandoned their troops.

"With leadership like that, it's no surprise they don't want to fight," said Capt. Joe Plenzler, with the 1st Marine Division.

In the village of Safwan, on the Iraqi side of the Kuwaiti border, civilians greeted U.S. Marines with cheers and joined them in gleefully tearing down posters of Hussein.

Perhaps more significant, an official at the U.S. Central Command in Doha said an estimated 20% of the Republican Guard -- the troops considered most loyal to Hussein -- either had defected or planned to defect in the coming days.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the estimate was based on conversations U.S. and British forces have had with selected Republican Guard commanders, some of whom are being offered a role in rebuilding the country.

Another senior U.S. military official, who also insisted that he not be named, said the aerial bombardment over the next 24 hours would focus on obliterating the top-tier forces, as well as disabling the Iraqi leadership's ability to communicate with its military and the nation at large.

U.S. intelligence officials said they still do not know whether Hussein or his sons were injured or killed in the predawn strike outside Baghdad on Thursday that was the opening salvo of the war.

"We continue to believe they were in the compound," one U.S. official said.

"There's conflicting reports about whether they were killed or injured."

The official said other countries claim to have fielded reports that Hussein was killed. He declined to name the countries. But he said the United States had been unable to corroborate the information.

Iraqi TV continued to broadcast Friday, and telephones in Baghdad were working.

But Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld suggested that Iraqi military communications might already be disintegrating.

"The regime is starting to lose control of their country," he said. "Their ability to see what is happening on the battlefield, to communicate with their forces and to control their country is slipping away."

Rumsfeld insisted that the United States was taking unprecedented measures to minimize civilian deaths by pinpointing government targets.

"Every single target has been analyzed, and the weapon has been carefully selected, and the direction in which the weapon is delivered has been carefully examined, and the time of day when there is the greatest prospect of minimizing any innocent lives," Rumsfeld said.

Publicly, at least, Iraqi officials were insistent that they were in control and would prevail.

"You will see in the next few days that our victory is certain, certain, certain," said Interior Minister Mahmud Dhiyab Ahmad. Iraqi officials said that during the first day of bombing, one woman was killed and 14 civilians injured. They listed military casualties as four killed and six wounded and said 72 bombs and missiles had landed.

The United States said American and British aircraft had flown more than 1,000 bombing sorties and launched 1,000 cruise missiles Friday alone.

"We're into this now," Rear Adm. John M. Kelly, battle group commander, told reporters aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, his flagship in the Persian Gulf. "We're gonna win it and win it fast."

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