'Baghdad is in flames'
Paul Wood and Rageh Omaar
Friday 21 March 2003
The BBC's Paul Wood and Rageh Omaar in Baghdad have been witnessing massive air strikes as the US unleashes what it calls its "shock and awe" strategy. Their movements are restricted by the Iraqi authorities.
"Wave after wave of missiles have struck all over the city. The attacks are much worse than the previous two nights.
Flashes lit up the night sky and plumes of flame and ash shot hundreds of feet into the air transforming the heart of the city.
The thud of detonation as government buildings and presidential palaces were hit was audible from all parts of the city.
Volleys of tracer fire light up the sky, powerless to interrupt the bombardment.
And across the horizon of the capital, flames are licking around familiar landmarks.
There has been a brief lull between the waves of attack.
Air raid sirens have wailed, but few people needed any warning - they have been taking shelter all day.
Even in the calm of daytime, normally bustling markets are deserted as families do not dare to leave their homes."
"Baghdad's defenders tried futilely to knock down incoming missiles and aircraft which were anyway flying high above the range of the guns.
But there was very little anti-aircraft fire by the time the second wave arrived.
We heard the sound of aircraft flying quite low over the city then.
One eyewitness in the Iraqi capital said there were now hundreds of armed men frantically digging trenches and making defensive positions on the outskirts of the capital."
Two Cities in Northern Iraq Are Targeted Along With Capital
By Patrick E. Tyler
New York Times
Friday 21 March 2003
KUWAIT American-led coalition forces began an intense bombing campaign in Iraq tonight, blasting targets in Baghdad and at least two other cities to the north, Pentagon officials said.
Live television reports from Baghdad beginning about 9 p.m. local time (1 p.m. E.S.T.) showed the city illuminated by huge explosions and Iraqi antiaircraft rounds. The antiarcraft fire diminished as the severity of the bombing increased. Large blasts were also reported today to the west of Baghdad.
The strike on the Iraqi capital was the beginning of the anticipated major air campaign, reporters at the Pentagon were told. The bombing attacks appeared to single out sites critical to Iraq's military and political leadership.
They came a day after the city was hit by American cruise missiles and bombs.
Other explosions were reported this evening in Kirkuk and Mosul, two major cities to the north of Baghdad.
The campaign came as coalition forces consolidated their hold on Umm Qasar today, an Iraqi port city south of Basra, taking control of the airport and oil refineries that military officials described as a crucial strategic asset of the Iraqi economy.
A British-led force numbering between 10,000 to 15,000, including Royal Marine commandos and about 2,500 United States marines captured Umm Qasar, whose airport and container port are considered important for bringing in military supplies and relief aid. The town provides Iraq with access to the Persian Gulf.
But equally important is its use as a staging area for the coalition's final push toward Basra, a city also considered vital to Iraq's economy.
A British military official reported only minor skirmishes with Iraqi forces at Umm Qasar, on the Faw Peninsula, and said that 250 Iraqi soldiers were reported to have surrendered today from among the forces of the 51st Iraqi mechanized division guarding nearby Basra.
The official said they would not move to take Basra until they felt that they would be welcomed by its residents.
In Safwan, just across the border with Kuwait in southern Iraq, civilians greeted the First Marine Division with cheers today as they entered the town. After capturing the town, some of the marines pulled down pictures of the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein.
Also today, the Pentagon confirmed the first reported combat casualty among the coalition force. A spokeswoman at the Pentagon's Central Command in Qatar said that a United States marine was killed in action today, but she declined to give further details.
The Associated Press, citing unidentified comrades of the dead marine, said that he with the First Expeditionary Force and was killed when he was shot in the stomach while his company was sweeping around a burning oil pumping station in southern Iraq.
Earlier today, military officials said eight British Royal Commandos and four American marines were killed when their CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter crashed in Kuwait. No further details were immediately available, but early indications were that the crash was not caused by hostile fire.
In London, the British defense minister, Geoff Hoon, said that Iraqi troops had set 30 oil wells on fire.
Supported by relentless artillery barrages, American and British armed forces pushed from Kuwait into the Iraqi desert beginning Thursday as cruise missiles pounded the heart of Baghdad.
For the most part, the coalition forces encountered only light resistance and when they were confronted their superior numbers and firepower enabled them to prevail.
Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain said today that there were "signs of desertions and division at all levels of Saddam's government." But he sounded a cautious note at a meeting in Brussels of European leaders today.
"I should warn that our forces will face resistance and that the campaign, necessarily, will not achieve all its objectives overnight," he said.
In Baghdad, the information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, sounded a defiant note.
"We will not let them leave the swamp they have entered," he said of the coalition forces. "They will meet their fate."
In Washington, President Bush began his work day with a series of discussions on the war. Aides said that he spoke by telephone with the national security adviser, Condoleeza Rice, and he invited Congressional leaders to the White House to brief them on the progress of the war.
Mr. Bush was informed early this morning of the death of the marine and an aide said that the president expressed regret over the loss of the serviceman.
The American and British advance into southern Iraq on Thursday followed a raid on Baghdad by stealth fighters and an attack with cruise missiles intended to destabilize the Iraqi government by killing Mr. Hussein. American intelligence officials were trying to determine Thursday night whether any Iraqi leaders were hit by this first strike of the war. The Pentagon suggested that some senior Iraqi officials might have been killed or injured.
From land bases across the Arabian peninsula and the Indian Ocean and from aircraft carriers at sea, American and British warplanes flew through moonlit skies to strike targets, including radars and artillery positions, in southern Iraq.
The attacks on Thursday, while substantial, fell short of the all-out bombardment promised by the Pentagon as the most effective means to force a quick surrender. It appeared that the Pentagon was still exploring the possibility that Mr. Hussein might be ousted without a fight through the defection of the his elite units.
Donald H. Rumsfeld, the defense secretary, said there was still time for the Iraqi army to surrender and avert an American attack "of a force and scope and scale beyond what has been seen before."
The opening attack of the campaign was authorized by President Bush at the conclusion of a meeting in the White House situation room on Wednesday morning, a senior White House official said Thursday night. At the meeting, according to the official's account, Mr. Bush spoke in a videoconference with Gen. Tommy R. Franks, head of the United States Central Command, who was at an air base in Saudi Arabia, and other commanders who were scattered throughout the region.
The president asked each commander whether they had everything they needed to win, and whether they were comfortable with the war plan. At the end of the meeting, the official said, Mr. Bush gave the go-ahead to the commanders to begin the war at the time they judged best, saying, "For the peace of the world and benefit and freedom of the Iraqi people, I hereby give the order to execute Operation Iraqi Freedom. May God Bless the troops."
General Franks replied, "May God bless America," and exchanged salutes with the president, who then left the room.
Reporters stationed with or near troops on the front lines in Kuwait reported intense artillery and aerial bombardment that began just before sundown. Bulldozers muscled aside earthen barriers to allow the rush of tanks and thousands of mechanized infantry vehicles under the staccato illumination of muzzle flashes and ordinance bursts.
Several hours later, journalists traveling with the Army's Seventh Cavalry reported an engagement with a small Iraqi force of tanks and trucks, which the American force destroyed.
The journalists said the unit was moving at a rate of 25 miles an hour traveling in Bradley fighting vehicles and had penetrated dozens of miles into Iraq. Most of the allied troops who crossed into Iraq were outfitted in their full chemical protection suits, gas masks at the ready.
There were no initial reports that Iraqi forces had employed chemical or biological weapons against the advancing allied force.
Armored units from the Army's Third Infantry Division and from the First Marine Expeditionary Force crossed into Iraq at 8 p.m. Thursday (noon, E.S.T.). Four hours earlier, an armored Marine unit reported the first firefight with Iraqi forces when it encountered two Iraqi armored personnel carriers on the Kuwaiti side of the frontier and destroyed them with machine guns and antitank missiles.
Kuwaiti officials said Thursday night that at least three Iraqi oil wells had been set on fire in the hours before the invasion. Sheik Thalal al-Khaled Al-Sabah, spokesman for Kuwait Petroleum Company, said that "around noon today," Kuwait oil field workers near the border "saw explosions at the wells and fires in the sky" over Iraq's Rumaila oil field, a strategic asset that United States forces had been seeking to protect.
The assault was preceded by a series of Iraqi missile attacks on military targets in Kuwait, an action that appeared to have accelerated the beginning of combat operations.
At least four medium-range missiles were fired from Iraqi launch sites that had apparently escaped detection during months of prewar bombing missions over southern Iraq intended to eliminate missile threats to Kuwait and to United States forces here.
Nonetheless, American forces shot down at least two of the incoming missiles, and two others struck in the desert, one near the Ali Salem Air Base and the other near Camp Commando, one of the main staging areas for United States forces.
Another factor that may have advanced the hour of the attack was frantic efforts by Iraqi forces to lay mines in the border region where allied forces were preparing to cross, military officials said.
The ground invasion advanced along at least two vectors: one, spearheaded by the Third Infantry, pushed northwest across the desert on a course that was expected to run along the western flank of the Euphrates River toward Baghdad. A second, led by British and American marines, employed ground and helicopter borne troops to attack on a northeasterly course toward the river and port complex around Basra.
"The British forces have closed the main coastal road and are using it as a helipad to launch their Chinook transport helicopters, and they are flying them into Iraq," said Mr. Fuad, speaking from the border region. He added that an American Patriot missile battery, able to shoot down incoming missiles, had been moved closer to the border to protect allied forces.
The First Marine Division, which was expected to join the Army's Third Infantry Division in its drive on Baghdad, opened fire on Iraqi positions at 6:25 p.m. with 155-millimeter howitzer barrages as Cobra helicopter gunships clattered ahead of them.
The marines focused their early fire on an elevated piece of desert known as Safwan Hill near the Iraqi border town of the same name, which was being defended by Iraq 51st Mechanized Division. A senior Marine Corps officer confidently predicted that the Iraqi defenders would be "history within 12 hours."
United States military officials have predicted mass surrender by units of the 51st division, whose soldiers are more poorly equipped and paid than Iraq's front-line Republican Guard divisions.
As the ground campaign began, there were no reports of the kind of mass surrender that occurred during the Persian Gulf war in 1991, when tens of thousands of Iraqi troops raised the white flag after 39 days of intense bombardment of their positions by coalition air forces.
Military officials reported light resistance in the opening hours of combat. Two crew members of a AH-64 Apache helicopter were injured when the craft crash landed in northern Kuwait. And six crew members of a MH-53 Pave Low special operations helicopter were uninjured when their craft went down in Iraq on Wednesday night.
The helicopter had been engaged in a secret mission. Its crew was recovered and American warplanes destroyed the damaged craft.
Explosions were seen in the night sky by journalists near the southern port city of Basra. In northern Iraq, a reporter for the Arabic television station Al Jazeera said Mosul was hit by explosions overnight.
Kuwait's civilian population, which has been host to more than 130,000 troops in its northern desert for months, was kept on edge by air raid sirens that began just after noon and continued to wail almost hourly until early this morning. Hotel guests were herded into basements and air travelers were rounded up at Kuwait International Airport and ordered to wait in bunkers for all-clear signals.
Though some Iraqi artillery shells landed in northern Kuwait and damaged buildings, there were no reports of injuries.
(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)