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WAR WITH IRAQ / AIR AND GROUND

Suicide Blast Kills 4 GIs at Checkpoint

An Iraqi official warns of more such attacks. Allies step up airstrikes in and around Baghdad to wear down the capital's defenses.

March 30, 2003|John Daniszewski and Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — An Iraqi army officer killed four U.S. soldiers in a suicide bombing Saturday at a checkpoint in central Iraq, and Saddam Hussein's regime warned that more such attacks would be carried out as it wages an unconventional war for survival.

"This is the beginning," Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan told reporters in Baghdad, hours after the bomber had motioned U.S. soldiers to his car at a military checkpoint near the city of Najaf and then detonated explosives. "You will hear more and more in the next few days.

As an intense aerial campaign blasted Hussein's Republican Guard on the outskirts of Baghdad, Ramadan vowed, "We will use any means to kill our enemy in our land, and we will follow the enemy into its land."

U.S. military officials denounced the bombing as an act of desperation and said it will not affect the way they carry out the war. But they ordered security increased at checkpoints, and the attack appeared certain to raise the level of tension and caution among allied forces who encounter civilians -- and thus inhibit the military's ability to win public support.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 01, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Military vehicle -- A photo caption accompanying an article in Section A on Sunday described a U.S. military vehicle that was destroyed in Iraq as a Bradley fighting vehicle. It was an amphibious assault vehicle.

The suicide bombing came as U.S. military planners intensified the air war and debated whether a larger ground force is needed in the drive toward Baghdad, according to defense officials. U.S. aircraft continued to pound the Republican Guard's Medina Division, deployed to defend the southern approaches to Baghdad, while the Iraqi capital was hit by some of the most ferocious airstrikes of the war.

U.S. defense officials acknowledged privately that they intended to slow the ground campaign for a few days, in part to let the air war wear down Iraqi defenses, and presumably to allow front-line troops to get fresh supplies.

"I'm going to pause and I'm going to work him [the Iraqi military] over until I've got him where I want to," said a senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "I want them pounded to dust until the only thing they can do is weakly wave their hand as we pass on to our objective.... We do not want a fair fight."

Early today, elements of the 1st Marine Division appeared to be pushing northward in central Iraq.

The number of U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf increased by 20,000 Friday to about 290,000, defense officials said. It could eventually reach 350,000 troops, they said. Nearly 100,000 U.S. troops are now in Iraq, according to the Pentagon.

The new deployments were ordered more than two weeks ago by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, but war planners are considering speeding the deployment of part of the 2nd Light Armored Cavalry Regiment from Ft. Polk, La., defense officials said.

U.S. and British forces continued to fight Iraqi troops on multiple fronts, and American commanders said they carried out several successful operations late Friday and Saturday.

In western Iraq, U.S. Army Rangers raided what defense officials said was an Iraqi commando headquarters in the dark early Saturday as part of a strategy aimed at ejecting all Iraqi forces from the region. A large number of prisoners were taken, Maj. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal said at the Pentagon.

In southern Iraq, Marines entering the city of Nasiriyah discovered possessions belonging to a group of GIs who went missing during an ambush in the area a week ago. They were then led to a shallow grave that contained human remains. The Marines were trying to determine whether they are the missing Americans.

Marine units later took control of a major military base on the fringe of the city that contained large amounts of weapons and chemical protection suits. Despite hours of fighting, Iraqi sniper fire continued in the area and by nightfall Saturday, the town was still declared to be unsafe.

Allied forces faced setbacks elsewhere Saturday. U.S. military officials at Central Command headquarters in Doha, Qatar, confirmed that warships in the Red Sea and Mediterranean had suspended firing cruise missiles over parts of Saudi Arabia to targets in Iraq after seven of the missiles apparently malfunctioned and fell into Saudi territory.

"We did have a number of missiles reported down in their territory," said Maj. Gen. Gene Renuart, director of operations at Central Command. He added that the U.S. military had agreed to review launch procedures before resuming the use of Saudi airspace. He provided no details about the problems with the missiles but insisted the temporary loss of Saudi airspace would not seriously affect the campaign against Hussein.

The Saudi announcement came on the same day American soldiers were pelted by eggs and stones by residents as they tried to recover an errant cruise missile in eastern Turkey.

As antiwar demonstrations continued in many cities -- more than 50,000 turned out in Berlin and an estimated 15,000 in Boston -- Pope John Paul II urged that the war not be allowed to become a "religious catastrophe" between Muslims and Christians.

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