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Iraq: Northern Front Opens As War Enters Second Week

Prague, 27 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- American troops parachuted into northern Iraq overnight to prepare the opening of a northern front in the war in Iraq.

Some 1,000 paratroopers landed in an airfield near the Kurdish city of Arbil. They'll establish a base through which more troops and tanks will be brought. Reuters quotes an unnamed official at U.S. Central Command as saying there will be "a robust flow" of follow-up forces.

It's the first sizable coalition force in the north since the war began one week ago. The U.S. had initially hoped to send troops to the north overland. But it failed to reach agreement with neighboring Turkey about using its territory.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the move in the north ratchets up the pressure on Iraq's government. "We are increasing the number of forces in the country [Iraq] every day. We're increasing them in the north, we're increasing them in the south, and we're increasing them in the west," Rumsfeld said.

So far, coalition troops have been advancing on Baghdad from the south in two main pushes, while the capital has been pounded by daily air strikes and mainly British forces have been trying to secure the south of the country.

This morning, Baghdad came under further bombardment. Yesterday, at least 14 people were killed in two blasts in a residential neighborhood that the Iraqi authorities blamed on a coalition air raid.

The U.S. said it had not targeted the area. But the Pentagon left open the possibility one of its bombs or missiles had gone astray -- or that an Iraqi antiaircraft missile had fallen back to earth.

Meanwhile, further details have been emerging about an Iraqi convoy heading south of the capital toward U.S. forces massed near Karbala. Initial reports spoke of a huge armored column of some 1,000 vehicles heading out under cover of a sandstorm.

But General Richard Meyers, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last night that the column numbered only "a few" light vehicles. "We understand there are a few vehicles that are coming south from Baghdad, towards the Karbala gap, I guess, as their general direction, and they're being engaged as we find them. And it won't matter whether it's day or night, we'll be able to find them. We don't think they're armored vehicles. They're light vehicles of some sort," Myers said.

Another Iraqi column came under fire yesterday, this time near the southern city of Basra.

A British commander, Air Marshall Brian Burridge, said today that British fighter jets and artillery destroyed a number of vehicles in the column that broke out of the city and headed south. "A column of Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles left Basra heading southwest towards U.K. forces. Having established that these forces were not trying to surrender, U.K. forces took swift and decisive action against this threat, destroying a number through a mixture of artillery and coalition air power," Burridge said.

Burridge said mines in the harbor at the port of Umm Qasr still pose a problem for efforts to bring in aid to the south. Britain said the first aid brought to southern Iraq by ship will be delayed by another 24 hours to allow forces to clear those mines.

A British ship is waiting offshore with some 230 tons of food, medicine, blankets, and water. Umm Qasr, which was secured by coalition troops earlier this week, is Iraq's only deep-water port.

The humanitarian situation in and around Basra is causing concern as parts of the city have been without water or electricity for days.

A convoy of military vehicles packed with aid arrived in Umm Qasr yesterday, while three trucks loaded with food and water from the Kuwaiti Red Crescent Society delivered supplies in the border town of Safwan amid chaotic scenes.

Iraq has repeatedly accused the U.S. and Britain of causing the humanitarian crisis -- while they say it's been going on for years under Saddam Hussein's rule.

Also today, the UN Security Council is due to renew debate about the war. Yesterday, most speakers denounced the war, while Iraqi UN Ambassador Muhammad al-Duri, called for the Security Council to end "the aggression."

"This barbaric, colonial military aggression against Iraq constitutes a dangerous violation of international peace and security. The United Nations and the Security Council, in particular, are called upon to condemn this invasion and aggression. They are called upon to work, to put an end to it, immediately, without conditions. It must demand that the American-British aggressors and others withdraw their attacking forces immediately outside the borders of the Republic of Iraq," al-Duri said.

The war, as well as humanitarian relief efforts and reconstruction plans, will be high on the agenda of talks later today between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush.