Planes flying again

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 28, 2003

Associated Press special correspondent

American-led forces bombed Iraqi targets and battled Iraqi troops the length and breadth of Saddam Hussein’s slowly shrinking domain on Thursday, and British forces claimed the destruction of 14 tanks in their biggest kill since World War II.

But American officials reported 25 Marines wounded or missing after fighting, apparently around An Nasiriyah, and the Iraqi regime breathed defiance. &uot;The enemy must come inside Baghdad, and that will be its grave,” said Defense Minister Sultan Mashem Ahmed.

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Eight days after the launching of Operation Iraqi Freedom, President Bush met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and declined to set a timetable for the war. It will last &uot;however long it takes” to win, he said, thumping the lectern for emphasis.

Both men the United Nations could help rebuild postwar Iraq, but sidestepped tricky questions of who would create and run a new government once Saddam was toppled.

In the war zone, sandstorms abated and the Americans and British reported making 600 strike flights during the day as they exploited their unchecked air superiority.

Warplanes bombed positions in northern Iraq near Kurdish-held areas and hit Republican Guard forces menacing American ground forces 50 miles south of Baghdad. The capital was rocked by an enormous explosion a few hours after nightfall when one of Saddam’s presidential palaces was hit.

Combat aircraft dropped bombs &uot;just about as fast as we can load them,” said Capt. Thomas A. Parker, aboard the USS Kitty Hawk in the Persian Gulf.

Cargo planes flew military supplies into northern Iraq, one day after 1,000 American airborne troops parachuted in to seize an airfield. One source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said additional personnel were being flown in, as well, and an early objective would be securing the northern oil fields near Kirkuk. Invading forces took control of southern Iraqi oil fields in the early hours of the ground war.

Several miles away, Kurdish militiamen and villagers celebrated the fall during the day of a hilltop position where Iraqi forces had menaced civilians for years.

U.S. forces had pounded the northern hills around Chamchamal over the past several days, and it appeared that the Iraqis abandoned their checkpoint and bunkers and retreated to the west.

In central Iraq, the first resupply plane landed on a restored runway at Tallil Airfield – hastily renamed &uot;Bush International Airport” by American forces who had secured it.

Still, Iraqi resistance continued to slow the drive on the capital and kept American and British forces out of key cities such as Basra and An Nasiriyah. Its mines kept ships with humanitarian assistance from unloading their cargo at the southern port city of Umm Qasr.

After eight days of fighting, Pentagon officials said close to 90,000 troops were in Iraq, and that another 100,000 to 120,000 were en route. All were part of a military blueprint made up long ago, officials said, sensitive to criticism that commanders had underestimated the need for troops to quell stronger-than-expected resistance or protect long supply lines.

Bush and Blair met as anti-war protests flared anew in the United States. In New York, hundreds of demonstrators lined three blocks of Fifth Avenue and dozens more lay down in the street in a &uot;die-in.” At the United Nations, the U.S. ambassador walked out of a debate on the war after Iraq’s ambassador accused the United States of trying to exterminate the Iraqi people.

One day after Iraq claimed more than a dozen civilians were injured in a missile strike in Baghdad, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said it was possible that an Iraqi missile was responsible. &uot;It may have been a deliberate attack inside of town,” he added.

There was little official information about the reported Marine casualties in fighting around An Nasiriyah, one of the southern Iraq cities where irregular forces have put up far more resistance than American military planners expected.

Brooks told reporters merely that some Marines had been injured in a 90-minute battle in the area. Officials at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where the troops are based, said 14 members of the 2nd Expeditionary Force were listed as wounded in action and another 11 as missing after fighting on Wednesday.

WTVD-TV of Durham, N.C., which has a reporter with the Lejeune Marines in An Nasiriyah, reported Wednesday that at least 25 had been injured earlier in the day during fierce house-to-house fighting, and said friendly fire may have been the cause of the injuries.

To the south, British forces have been trying for days to gain control over Basra, but die-hard defenders of Saddam’s regime have held positions inside the city amid reports of clashes with the local population.

Adm. Michael Boyce, chief of the British defense staff, told reporters that British forces destroyed 14 tanks that tried to leave the city during the morning. According to historians, it was Britain’s biggest such battle since World War II.

&uot;It’s a suicidal approach which is irrational with no military logic to it,” said Capt. Al Lockwood, a British officer.

Eight days into the war, Iraqis accused U.S. and British forces of targeting civilians. They, in turn, were accused of seizing Iraqi children to force their fathers into battle.

&uot;They are targeting the human beings in Iraq to decrease their morale,” Iraqi Health Minister Omeed Medhat Mubarak told reporters. Officials said about 350 civilians had been killed in the operation, and more than 3,500 others injured.

British officials also reported finding a cache of about 100 chemical protection suits and respirators at an abandoned Iraqi command post, the second find in the last few days.

Bush and Blair used their news conference to demand that the United Nations’ oil-for-food program restart immediately. About 60 percent of Iraq’s 22 million people are fed through the program, under which Iraq is allowed to sell unlimited oil, as long as the money goes mainly to buy food, medicine and other humanitarians goods for the population. The program was halted when the United Nations ordered its workers to leave the country.