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Iraq: Huge Explosions Heard In Baghdad

Prague, 21 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- As a sustained barrage of missiles and bombs rained down on Iraq's capital Baghdad tonight, U.S. military officials said a long-promised campaign of aerial bombardment had begun.

Several buildings in the city center, including reportedly one in the presidential compound, were on fire after being hit by multiple rocket volleys. Reports from Mosul said that strategic northern city was also under air attack.

Tonight's escalation of the air campaign follows a multi-pronged land advance by U.S. and British forces into Iraq, which began early this morning from staging points along the Kuwaiti border.

British commandos took quick control of the strategic Al-Faw Peninsula and secured key oil facilities. British and U.S. forces have now wiped out remaining Iraqi resistance in the port of Umm Qasr, on the Kuwaiti border, and established full control over the city. British Defense Secretary Geoffrey Hoon said the primary aim of coalition forces had been to secure oil wells in the area as rapidly as possible, to prevent Iraqi forces from setting them alight.

Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, chief of Britain's Defence Staff, told a briefing tonight only a small number of wells had been set ablaze by retreating Iraqi forces. "All the key components of the southern [Iraqi] oil fields are now safe, and I am also pleased to be able to tell you that the latest information I have had is that only seven well heads have been fired, as opposed to the some 30 or so that we suspected might have been on fire today," Boyce said.

The rapid pace of events and military rules on what the press can report continue to make if difficult for journalists covering the war to deliver precise information. But U.S. and British forces are reported to be on the outskirts of Basra, Iraq's main southern city.

The Pentagon said at least one U.S. marine was killed in southern Iraq in unknown circumstances and that eight British troops and four U.S. soldiers were killed in an overnight helicopter crash in Kuwait that was apparently not combat related.

Although tonight's aerial bombing could well continue, British military expert Charles Heyman, editor of "Jane's World Armies," told RFE/RL that the Pentagon's use of the term "shock and awe" may not be an apt description of what we are likely to witness. In Heyman's view, avoiding mass civilian casualties must be one of the U.S. and British military's top priorities. So far, he said, they have performed well and they can be expected to continue, despite an increase in bombing runs.

"You have to think about it logically. 'Shock and awe' would almost certainly have caused huge numbers of civilian casualties. And that's something that the coalition desperately does not want at this moment in time. They have enough political problems on their hands, especially the legitimacy of the operation, without causing huge numbers of Iraqi civilian casualties. And that's something that's quite obvious in the way things are going. That's something they're trying to keep to an absolute minimum," Heyman said.

In other respects, the U.S. effort to avoid "collateral damage," appears to be going less smoothly. Protests against the war in many countries picked up in intensity today. In the Egyptian capital Cairo, riot police and security forces battled for hours with several thousand stone-throwing protesters at the Al-Azhar Mosque in the center of the city.

Police used water cannons and truncheons to try to disperse the crowd. Violent protests also broke out in Bahrain, with police resorting to rubber bullets and tear gas to beat back 2,000 violent demonstrators. Similar scenes broke out in cities in Yemen and Jordan.

In Turkey, about 5,000 antiwar demonstrators clashed with police in central Istanbul. There too, police fired tear gas to disperse protesters, who hurled rocks and furniture at security forces. In Pakistan, officials said some 200 rallies took place throughout the country. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, thousands of Palestinians protested against the war in Iraq.

For the second day in a row, at least 50,000 people took to the streets of the Greek capital Athens in a peaceful demonstration against the use of force in Iraq.

On the diplomatic front, Turkish airspace reportedly remained closed to U.S. warplanes today, amid growing tension between Ankara and Washington over Turkey's desire to send its troops into northern Iraq. Turkish and U.S. diplomats, locked in talks throughout the day, remained unable to reach agreement on the principles governing overflights despite yesterday's vote by the Turkish parliament allowing "foreign air-force elements" to use Turkish airspace for operations in Iraq.

The U.S. State Department once again warned Turkey against any unilateral military action in northern Iraq -- a move which local Kurdish commanders say will prompt them to take up arms against Ankara's forces.

Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters he was in touch with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He expressed cautious optimism that problems could be ironed out, although he did not give any indication that a breakthrough was imminent.

"I had a long conversation with Prime Minister Erdogan about it [U.S. overflights] last night and I hope we can clear it up. If not, we'll have to find alternate arrangements," Powell said.

And in Brussels, rifts over Iraq threatened to end a two-day European Union summit in acrimony. At the summit, British Prime Minister Tony Blair urged his 14 colleagues to support a new UN resolution to authorize a post-Saddam "civil authority in Iraq." This was rejected by French President Jacques Chirac.