U.S., British forces invade Iraq from south, first casualties suffered

By S. Thorne Harper, Juan O. Tamayo and Martin Merzer Knight Ridder Newspapers (KRT) INSIDE SOUTHERN IRAQ _ More than 60,000 U.S. and British troops invaded southern Iraq, artillery batteries bombarded enemy positions and Tomahawk cruise missiles blasted Baghdad again Thursday night as the second Gulf War expanded. And the United States and Britain suffered their first casualties in the war to oust Saddam Hussein, as a U.S. Marine helicopter crashed in Kuwait. All 16 aboard the CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter were believed killed, a Defense Department official said. The unarmed transport helicopter, with a four-person American crew, was carrying 12 British troops back to Kuwait after a mission in Iraq, defense officials said. The crash around 7 p.m. EST _ 3 a.m. Kuwaiti time _ was probably due to mechanical problems, officials said. The Defense Department confirmed that all U.S. personnel aboard were killed. British officials had not confirmed the deaths of their personnel Friday. While there were no Iraqi chemical or biological attacks Thursday, Iraqi forces fired at least four ineffectual missiles at U.S. positions in Kuwait. Iraqi forces also torched at least nine Iraqi oil wells or pipelines. Early Friday, hours after the invasion began, hundreds of allied military vehicles were backed up at the Kuwait-Iraq border. Marines waiting to enter could see a fire burning in the al Rumeila oil fields to the east. A plume of thick, black smoke stretched south as far as the eye could see. Radio traffic indicated that a Marine detachment had been sent to take control of the oil field but it was unclear Friday morning whether the effort was successful. U.S. officials called Iraq’s military response modest and uncoordinated, suggesting that key aides of Saddam Hussein _ perhaps even Saddam himself _ may have been incapacitated or killed by the precision air attack that opened the war. That raised the possibility that the war’s duration could be shortened and the cost in lives and property curtailed. Still, the war was clearly intensifying Thursday. “Aim point is Baghdad,” Col. Joe Dowdy said as 60,000 Marines plus Navy SEALs and British commandos abandoned foxholes and other positions in northern Kuwait, climbed into a snaking convoy of thousands of armored vehicles and rumbled into Iraq. Mortars and cannon shells screamed overhead _ and U.S. infantry troops cheered. Army artillery and Apache helicopter gunships raked Iraqi positions. A Marine unit knocked out an Iraqi 1950s-vintage T-55 tank, eliciting lusty “hoorahs” from officers at headquarters. In addition, hundreds of British Royal Marine commandos and U.S. Navy SEALs attacked an Iraqi beach at the head of the Persian Gulf. “Tonight, British servicemen and women are engaged from air, land and sea,” British Prime Minister Tony Blair told his nation during a televised address. The British force was made up of the Royal Marines’ 3 Commando Brigade. Units named 40 and 42 Commandos attacked the al Faw peninsula while the 539 Assault Squadron landed on the beach and cleared mines, according to British officials. The attack was supported by naval gunfire and artillery across the channel that separates Bubiyan Island in Kuwait from Iraq. Earlier in the day, Royal Marine snipers, 3 Commando Brigade Reconnaissance Force and U.S. Navy SEALs infiltrated the area to harass Iraqi forces on the al Faw peninsula. Apparently in reaction to Iraq’s subdued response, the Pentagon launched a limited ground attack ahead of schedule but did not accelerate its much-heralded aerial blitzkrieg. Instead, U.S. and British forces launched another round of limited air attacks on Baghdad and then began the ground advance into Iraq by the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and various British units. The objective, according to two senior administration officials who requested anonymity, was to oust Saddam and disarm Iraq without causing widespread civilian casualties and immense destruction to Iraq’s economic infrastructure. The evolving strategy also could place fewer American lives in danger. President Bush and his aides on Friday morning will consider whether to launch the massive aerial blitzkrieg after darkness falls in Iraq Friday evening, or whether to continue using more limited force in hopes that Saddam’s regime will collapse without massive destruction. “There’s no question we’ve sent the finest of our citizens into harm’s way,” Bush said during a Cabinet meeting at the White House. “They perform with great skill and great bravery. We thank them, we thank their loved ones, we appreciate their sacrifice.” As darkness fell on Baghdad, another large volley of Tomahawk missiles _ more than two dozen _ launched by U.S. and British submarines and warships rocked the capital. Heavy explosions shook the city, and dense black smoke rose from several sites. Precision strikes hit the main presidential palace and the ministry of planning. Other key targets included strongholds of Saddam’s elite Republican Guard and the special security organization headed by Saddam’s son, Qusai. The International Red Cross said one person was killed and 14 people were wounded during the first wave of U.S. missile strikes; no casualties were immediately reported from the second attack. Even as the fresh wave of missiles struck Baghdad, CIA analysts concluded that it was Saddam, not one of his doubles, who appeared on Iraqi television shortly after the U.S. attempted to kill him and his top aides in the opening salvo. The analysts, however, were not sure if the appearance was live or prerecorded _ leaving open the question of whether Saddam was alive. Even if he was, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, “the days of Saddam Hussein are numbered.” Millions of people around the world vented again over the war. Protestors blocked streets and bridges in Washington, D.C., and gathered in Philadelphia, San Francisco, New York and other American cities. Demonstrations also flared in many cities in the Arab World and in Europe. Meanwhile, U.S. and British troops streamed into southern Iraq as artillery batteries and attack helicopters pulverized enemy positions. Behind them, hundreds of Humvees and trucks rumbled off ships in Kuwait City, lined up in rows, and immediately began their journey to war. A semblance of a counterattack came when Iraq fired at least four missiles at U.S. positions in Kuwait. Sirens sounded repeatedly in U.S. bases and Kuwait City. U.S. officials issued several chemical weapons alerts and American troops wore gas masks through much of the day. Patriot anti-missile missiles intercepted three Iraqi missiles, according to Army Lt. Col. Geoff Ward of the 3rd Infantry Division. Among the troops, cheers and applause greeted each announcement of a Patriot interception. One missile fell near Camp Commando, a Marine headquarters position in northern Kuwait, carving a 2-foot-deep crater, slicing some overhead power lines, but inflicting no other damage. Inside one bunker in northern Kuwait, Staff Sgt. Teresa Hawkins, 32, made the sign of the cross as sirens wailed outside. “This was the first time I’ve been in a war,” she said, “and I was thinking, `I could die.’ ” In southern Iraq, reporters traveling with U.S. military units reported flames on the horizon over Iraq’s valuable al Rumeila oil field. U.S. military officials said Iraqi forces set fire to at least nine wells or pipelines. They also set fire to oil-filled defensive trenches. “Oil trenches are burning all over southeastern Iraq right now,” said one Marine intelligence officer. Before the war began, U.S. officials expressed concern that Saddam _ whose forces ignited Kuwaiti oil wells as the first Gulf War ended in 1991 _ would sabotage Iraq’s oil fields as his regime crumbled. Navy SEALs and British Royal Marine commandos averted an environmental catastrophe Thursday by capturing three critical oil installations _ a manifold and metering station in the southern port of al Faw and two ship-loading jetties in the Persian Gulf. The helicopter-borne raid prevented Iraqis from opening their oil taps to the shallow and slow-moving waters of the Gulf. Rumsfeld warned again that anyone who destroys oil fields or uses chemical or biological weapons would be punished by advancing U.S. forces and could be prosecuted as war criminals. “The Iraqi soldiers and officers must ask themselves whether they want to die fighting for a doomed regime or do they want to survive, help the Iraqi people in the liberation of their country and play a role in a new, free Iraq,” Rumsfeld said. After Rumsfeld gave senators a closed-door evening briefing on Capitol Hill, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said, “as the plan evolves, it will be more and more intense, more and more violent and more and more destructive. “It’s a decision for the Iraqi people as to how much of a battering they will take before they change their leader,” Stevens said. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., said that before the assaults grow more violent, U.S. military planners want to clear the path with precision strikes. “They have some things they wanted to do, some things they wanted to secure” first. Earlier, Rumsfeld and Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, emphasized that Iraqi military leaders could spare themselves and their nation much harm if they quickly capitulated. U.S. intelligence officials also have been telephoning Iraqi Republican Guard officials at home and trying to negotiate their surrender, said administration officials who requested anonymity. In some cases, Arabic-speaking U.S. officials also have called the families of some officers at times when they calculated the soldiers weren’t home and warned them of what could happen if the U.S. assault proceeded. The Turkish parliament, meanwhile, made Rumsfeld’s task a bit easier, voting to open that country’s airspace to U.S warplanes. Turkish legislators, however, did not address a longstanding U.S. request to let 62,000 troops open a second front by crossing Iraq’s northern border from Turkey. Rumsfeld also sought to address the Iraqi people, echoing words spoken by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower on June 6, 1944, when he announced the World War II invasion of France: “The hour of your liberation is approaching.” Said Rumsfeld: “To the Iraqi people, let me say that the day of your liberation will soon be at hand.” ___ (Andrea Gerlin, Tom Infield, Tom Lasseter, Sara Olkon, Patrick Peterson, Daniel Rubin, Warren P. Strobel and Fawn Vrazo contributed to this report.) ___ ‘copy 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.