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Shock and Awe starts; Baghdad bombarded



Published: Fri, March 21, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



Resistance to allied troops was limited; at least 200 Iraqis have surrendered.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

American and British forces advanced today through southern Iraq, some racing unimpeded across the desert, others meeting hostile fire. Hundreds of Iraqi soldiers surrendered, and U.S. officials said Iraq's command structure appeared to have disintegrated.

The allies reported their first combat casualty, a U.S. Marine with the 1st Expeditionary Force killed in southern Iraq. According to a comrade, the Marine -- whose name was withheld -- was shot in the stomach while his company was sweeping around a burning oil pumping station.

Twelve more Marines -- eight British and four American -- died when their helicopter crashed and burned in Kuwait. Officials said the crash was not caused by hostile fire.

Hoping the regime might capitulate, U.S. military commanders held back-channel negotiations with Iraqi commanders and refrained from all-out bombardment. Instead, U.S. missiles and bombs struck specific targets -- including the main presidential palace in Baghdad and strongholds of the elite Special Republican Guard.

Iraq denies casualties

Iraq's information minister acknowledged today that one of Saddam Hussein's homes was hit in the U.S. bombardment, but said no one was hurt.

"They rocketed the residence of his household," Mohammed Sa'eed al-Sahhaf said at a news conference. "But thank God, they are all safe."

Al-Sahhaf lashed out at the "criminal George Bush and his gang."

"They are superpower of villains. They are superpower of Al Capone," he said. "We will not allow them to get out of this quagmire which we trapped them in. They will see their end there."

U.S. officials said they had no definitive word on whether the Iraqi leader was caught in the attack, but indicated that medical workers were summoned to a compound in Baghdad after it was hit. The officials said Iraqi forces subsequently seemed cut off from their leadership.

The official Iraqi News Agency said 37 people were injured in the latest strikes on Baghdad, and Iraqi military said four soldiers were killed. There were no figures given on Iraqi losses in ground combat.

Allied advance

In the war zone, U.S. and British forces moved on a broad front, with infantry racing across the desert in thousands of tanks and trucks, plumes of dust in their wake, and Marines edging cautiously toward strategic oil towns and military outposts, calling in air support to take out snipers. In some cases, units were preceded by special forces teams.

"There are signs of continuing Iraqi desertions and disagreement and division in all levels of the regime," said British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

U.S. Marines seized a portion of the main road leading from Kuwait to Basra, suppressing resistance from Iraqi mortars and arms.

Officers said the seizure could help speed the takeover of Basra, southern Iraq's largest city.

Overall, resistance to the allies was limited.

Within a few hours of crossing into southern Iraq, the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit encountered 200 or more Iraqi troops seeking to surrender.

One group of 40 Iraqis marched down a two-lane road toward the Americans and gave up.

They were told to lie face down on the ground, then were searched by Marines.

Civilian welcome

Waving Iraqi civilians greeted members of the 1st Marine Division as they entered the town of Safwan.

"We're very happy. ... Saddam Hussein is a butcher," said a man in the back of a pickup truck, identifying himself only as Abdullah.

A woman fell at the feet of the Americans and embraced them, touching their knees.

Soldiers from the Army's 3rd Infantry Division also crossed into Iraq and encountered several Iraqi armored personnel carriers, destroying at least three, troops reported by radio.

British troops moved on the strategic al-Faw peninsula -- Iraq's access point to the Persian Gulf and the site of major oil facilities.

Iraqi troops set fire to 30 of the hundreds of oil wells in the region, British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said. Iraq has 1,685 oil wells and exported 2 million barrels daily before the war.




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