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U.S. Opens Northern Front in Iraq

Paratroopers secure an airfield in Kurdish enclave. Baghdad blames the U.S. for a missile strike that it says killed 15 civilians.

March 27, 2003|Paul Watson and John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writers

HARIR, Iraq — A thousand U.S. soldiers parachuted into northern Iraq early today, forming the vanguard of a new front in the war, hours after two missiles slammed into a residential neighborhood in Baghdad, killing 15 civilians by Iraqi count.

Facing no hostile fire, the paratroopers from the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade jumped from low-flying planes during the early-morning darkness and descended in groups of 100 into a broad valley lined with snow-covered mountains near this town, about 60 miles northeast of the city of Irbil.

They secured an airstrip where other aircraft will bring in military equipment and thousands more troops, Pentagon officials said. The airborne soldiers joined about 200 troops already on the ground, including Green Berets and other special operations troops working with ethnic Kurds -- who control the region -- to identify Iraqi targets.

Despite a second day of blinding sandstorms, scattered fighting flared throughout Iraq on Wednesday. Allied warplanes pounded two of the six Republican Guard units surrounding Baghdad. In the confusion, U.S. commanders reported that 1,000 Republican Guard vehicles had begun to move south toward American forces but later said the guard was simply repositioning itself around the capital.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 28, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Joint Chiefs of Staff -- Articles in Section A on Sunday and Thursday referred to Army Maj. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He is vice director of operations for the group but is not one of its generals.

To the south, U.S.-led forces destroyed several Iraqi armored vehicles that broke out of Basra, the country's second-largest city. Also in the south, the first shipment of humanitarian aid arrived from Kuwait. Even as Iraqis reached for the boxes of food, they accused the U.S. and Britain of trying to humiliate them with the help and chanted, "We give our blood and hearts to Saddam."

The Pentagon increased its count of Americans killed in the fighting to 24 and said 19 had been wounded. Two other Marines have been reported dead in the campaign but were not included in the Pentagon tally.

Defense officials also revised their estimate of Iraqi forces killed Tuesday night in a fierce firefight near the central city of Najaf upward from 200 to at least 350.

Uncounted other Iraqis have been killed, the officials said, and about 4,500 more have been taken prisoner -- about 1% of President Saddam Hussein's forces.

President Bush flew to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., home of the U.S. Central Command, and told thousands of troops and their families crammed into a large hangar, "There will be a day of reckoning for the Iraqi regime, and that day is drawing near."

Before Bush spoke, Ari Fleischer, the president's press secretary, had told reporters that Bush would say allied forces were ahead of schedule in their effort to drive Hussein from power. Instead, the president told the troops: "This war is far from over ....We have an effective plan of battle and the flexibility to meet every challenge.

"Nothing, nothing will divert us from our clear mission. We will press on through every hardship. We will overcome every danger. And we will prevail."

A senior White House official who declined to be identified said later that Bush had not mentioned being ahead of schedule because "he was erring on the side of being conservative."

The civilian deaths in Baghdad occurred in the Al Shaab district in the northern part of the city. Missiles blew a crater in a street and left a tangle of wreckage that included burning cars and damaged homes and businesses.

A water main burst, slowing ambulances that took the injured to hospitals.

At the Pentagon, Army Maj. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the United States had not targeted the Baghdad neighborhood and offered two possible explanations: that U.S. missiles had missed their intended targets or that Iraqi surface-to-air missiles had gone astray.

Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said Iraq had placed missile launchers within 300 feet of homes in the district. She called it "a sign of the brutality of this regime and how little they care about civilians."

But the civilian casualties inflamed anti-American emotions in the Arab world, where the battle for Iraq is increasingly seen not as a fight to dislodge a vicious dictator but the brave struggle of a people against invaders from the world's most powerful nation.

In some Arab countries, television called the missile attack a U.S. "massacre" and showed footage of bodies and body parts being carried from the scene.

The attack also seemed a setback in the U.S. and British campaign to win the loyalties of ordinary Iraqis and concentrate hostilities on Hussein, his command and control facilities and members of his regime.

In northern Iraq, troops from the airborne brigade, based in Vicenza, Italy, parachuted onto the airfield in friendly territory, controlled by Kurdish guerrillas since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The paratroopers cleared the way for Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles belonging to elements of the Army's 1st Infantry Division.

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