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Iraq: Fourth Day Of War Brings Bad News To Allies

Washington, 24 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- After three days of nearly uninterrupted success, the fourth day of the U.S.-led war against Iraq was a day for U.S. President George W. Bush and his defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, to deal with some bad news for the coalition forces.

A U.S. Patriot missile brought down a British fighter jet, killing the crew. An American soldier was accused of a grenade attack on his comrades, killing one of them. And the Arabic-language satellite television network Al-Jazeera and Iraqi state TV showed several people in Iraqi custody whom it identified as U.S. soldiers -- including four who were dead.

Allied commanders said they could not confirm the authenticity of the broadcast, but both Rumsfeld and Richard Myers, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that several troops could not be accounted for.

Rumsfeld said that if Al-Jazeera and Iraqi TV was indeed showing U.S. prisoners of war, Iraq was guilty of violating the Geneva Convention for publicly humiliating them. And Bush said Iraq should follow the American example on prisoners.

"The POWs [prisoners of war] I expect to be treated humanely, just like we're treating the prisoners that we have captured humanely. If not, the people who mistreat the prisoners will be treated as war criminals."

This first flood of bad news was offset somewhat by word that U.S. and British forces have fought their way to within 160 kilometers of Baghdad. The allies also were strengthening their northern front, with a liberal dose of air power.

Bush applauded the allied success and the apparent waning of Saddam Hussein's grip on Iraq. But, speaking with reporters today outside the White House, the U.S. president was careful to remind Americans that the war was not yet won: "I know that Saddam Hussein is losing control of his country, that we're slowly but surely achieving our objective. It's important for the American people to realize that this war has just begun."

Rumsfeld agreed. During an interview with American television on CNN he cited reports that Hussein was weakening but he stressed that the reports may be deliberately misleading.

Still, the defense secretary said he had no doubt about the results of the war, regardless of how long it may take or even if Iraqi forces decide to use chemical or biological weapons against American and British forces.

"The coalition forces are trained and equipped to operate in that environment [a nuclear or biological weapons attack]. There's no question but that if it's done, it will slow things down," Rumsfeld said. "There is no way it will change the outcome."

Allied forces also are strengthening their northern front against Baghdad. U.S. warplanes carrying military personnel have been landing frequently in the area, which has a large Kurdish population.

The American aircraft also struck positions of Ansar al-Islam, a militant Muslim group in the north of Iraq that the United States says is affiliated with the Al-Qaeda terrorist network.

The United States had hoped to be able to move into northern Iraq from neighboring southeastern Turkey. But Turkey has granted the Americans only the rights to fly over its territory.

Bush today also urged Turkey not to send its own forces into northern Iraq. The Turkish government is denying reports that as many as 1,000 of its troops entered Iraq on 21 March. Turkey has expressed fears that the war could lead to independence for Kurds in northern Iraq. This, they say, could embolden Kurdish rebels in Turkey.

Bush said the Ankara government should not fear instability in the area of Iraq bordering Turkey: "We're in constant touch with the Turkish military as well as Turkish politicians. They know our policy, and it's a firm policy. And we've made it very clear to them we expect them not to go into northern Iraq, as well as -- and they know we're working with the Kurds to make sure there's not an incident that would cause there to be an excuse to go into northern Iraq."

Turkey has massed troops along its border with Iraq, saying it is preparing for a what it fears may be a massive humanitarian crisis in the region. Bush says that will be addressed soon -- and from the south, not from northern Iraq.

The American president said the aid will soon flow from vessels in the Persian Gulf into the southern Iraqi port city of Umm Qasr.

"In the south of Iraq, our coalition forces have worked hard to make the port area secure, to make the transit of humanitarian aid as safe as possible," Bush said. "As I was told this morning in my briefings, humanitarian aid should begin moving -- massive amounts of humanitarian aid should begin moving within the next 36 hours."

Bush did not give specifics of the aid ready to be brought into Iraq.

Umm Qasr is still not firmly in allied hands, however. Forces from the coalition today were still reported to be contending with Iraqi guerrillas in the city.