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Iraq: U.S., British Troops Meeting Sporadic Resistance Amid First Casualties

Prague, 21 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The ground campaign against Iraq is unfolding today with U.S. and British forces meeting sporadic resistance as they push deeper into the country.

British troops captured Iraq's strategic Al-Faw peninsula but faced strong opposition to the west at Umm Qasr, on the Kuwaiti border.

British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon told Parliament: "The tip of the [Al-Faw] peninsula was secured, as planned, by 40 commando Royal marines and without damage to the oil infrastructure, averting any attempt by the regime to cause an environmental disaster in the Gulf."

The push follows a second night of aerial bombardment of Baghdad and heavy artillery strikes on Iraqi positions across the Iraq-Kuwaiti border.

It also comes as coalition forces suffered their first casualties since the war began yesterday.

U.S. officials say a U.S. Marine was killed today in southern Iraq in unknown circumstances, while eight British and four U.S. troops were killed in a U.S. helicopter crash in Kuwait overnight. The crash appears to have been an accident and not the result of enemy fire.

Spearheading one thrust of the ground invasion is a huge convoy of tanks and assault vehicles with the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division. Reports say they have encountered little or no resistance so far.

Our correspondent, Ron Synovitz, is traveling with the 3rd Infantry Division: "The Iraqis that I've seen have been only the Bedouin Iraqis here. Many of them are following the instructions that they've been given in this incident, which is to stay inside of their homes, stay inside of their tents, keep their arms down, don't wave their arms and look like they may be brandishing a weapon of some kind. However we've seen both women and men waving greetings and shouting greeting to the U.S. troops. So far we've had no direct contact with any hostile enemy forces. There were a lot of decoys, tanks and armored personnel carriers made out of wood, which U.S. troops fired on."

There are reports that several groups of Iraqi soldiers in southern Iraq have surrendered to U.S. and British troops. The Marines alone report having taken custody of some 250 Iraqi soldiers.

There also have been accounts of explosions coming from near the southern Iraqi city of Basra and in the northern city of Mosul. And there are unconfirmed reports that several oil wells in the south of the country were set on fire by Iraqi forces.

The war began early yesterday with airstrikes aimed at taking out Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and his top aides. British Defense Secretary Hoon said it is still not known whether Hussein was killed or hurt in the raid.

But Iraqi Information Minister Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf said today that Hussein is "safe": "They [U.S. and British forces] targeted the residence of the family of President Saddam Hussein, but God protected them [the family]. They targeted the houses of his family, but they are safe."

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said last night he still hopes Hussein will be gone before coalition forces unleash their full might: "The pressure is continuing on the Iraqi regime, and [the regime] will not be there in the period ahead, and we still hope that it is possible that [the regime] will not be there without [having to use] the full force and fury of a war."

That prospect may have moved closer today with reports that U.S. B-52 bombers have taken off from a British base, though officials declined to say what their mission is. But so far, the threatened "shock and awe" bombing has not materialized.

If and when it does come, it will bring with it the risk to another American and British objective -- to keep civilian casualties at a minimum.

Iraq says last night's limited strikes caused 37 casualties, though that figure can't be independently confirmed.

James Wyllie is director of the Conflict Studies program at Aberdeen University in Scotland. He says the limited strikes so far have given a taste of the firepower at the disposal of the U.S.-led coalition. He says it's also aimed at showing largely hostile world opinion that the U.S. is exercising responsible restraint.

Wyllie says "shock and awe" bombing will come. But he says it won't be the sort of carpet bombing seen in previous wars that caused massive civilian casualties: "The shock and the awe will be wonderment at the actual precision of the attacks and the contained violence of the attacks. So what the attacks mean to strike, then nine times out of 10 they will indeed strike it and will totally destroy it. So there will be wonderment, as well as shock and awe, at the sophistication and the high quality in military terms of these attacks."

Wyllie says the U.S. and Britain will try to keep large parts of the Iraqi conscript army intact: "In any postwar situation, having an Iraqi army which isn't deeply resentful against the Anglo-American liberation forces may be very useful. The army may be used to keep order in the country. And this gives them all the more incentive to surrender. If [they're] not going to [be destroyed] immediately, then they will surrender intact and that will be good for public opinion, not just in Iraq but also in the wider world."

Paul Cornish, director of London's Center for Defence Studies, also says mass bombing won't necessarily endanger the objective of keeping civilian casualties at a minimum. He says the targets will be things like military units and missile sites: "I still think we're in the realm of symbolism really. So, if you can identify a Republican Guard brigade or regiment or headquarters that's beginning to look [like it's] on the move and isn't staying where it should be, then that's going to be attacked, and so it will set an example that will spread to the others. What they're trying to do is say, 'Look, stay exactly where you are and you won't be touched. But if you are moving, then it's assumed that you're aggressive,' and they will attack them."

Cornish also notes that the B-52 bombers have been modified to carry precision munitions.

In Brussels, British Prime Minister Tony Blair today said the military campaign in Iraq is going well, but warned the war will not be won quickly.

Blair, speaking on the sidelines of a European Union summit, said Iraqi troops are deserting and there are signs of disagreement in the Iraqi command structure. But he said he expects resistance from Iraqi forces.

"There are signs of continuing Iraqi desertions and disagreement and division at all levels of the regime, but I should warn that our forces will face resistance and that the campaign, necessarily, will not achieve all its objectives overnight."

INA, Iraq's official news agency, says Iraqi troops today shot down a U.S. or British warplane, but the Pentagon denied the report.

British Defense Secretary Hoon today said it was still not known whether Hussein was killed or hurt in the first air strikes in the Iraq war early yesterday.

In a British television interview Hoon said that there is "a continuing analysis" taking place of the broadcast that was supposedly of Hussein seen yesterday hours after the air strikes began.

In Baghdad, Iraqi Information Minister al-Sahhaf and Interior Minister Mahmud Dhiyab al-Ahmad briefed reporters, Al-Jazeera reported. Al-Sahhaf asserted that "international law does not apply to the invading forces," calling coalition troops "mercenaries" and "war criminals," and hinting that they would be treated as such -- presumably indicating that Iraq might not adhere to international conventions related to the treatment of prisoners of war. Al-Sahhaf also denied that video reports of Iraqi soldiers surrendering being played in the international media are fabricated and insisted that no Iraqi soldiers had surrendered. Al-Ahmad told the press that he had spoken with an official in Umm Qasr and "confirmed" that coalition Forces had not entered the area.