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Iraq: Northern Front Bolstered; British Troops Destroy 14 Tanks Near Basra

Prague, 27 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. troops have arrived in the north of Iraq to prepare the opening of a northern front in the war.

Some 1,000 paratroopers landed overnight in an airfield near the Kurdish city of Arbil -- the first sizable coalition force in the north. Their aim is to secure Kurdish-held territory and establish a base through which more troops and tanks will be brought. Officials say there will be "a robust flow" of follow-up forces.

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.

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.

Media also report that the U.S. sent extra troops to the Persian Gulf today. Some 12,000 troops from the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division, initially due to enter Iraq through Turkey, left their Texas base today.

The news comes as the war enters its second week amid Iraqi claims of mounting civilian casualties.

Iraqi Health Minister Umeed Midhat Mubarak said 36 civilians died and 215 were injured in air raids on the capital in the past 24 hours. And he said more than 350 have died since the war began. "How many martyrs? It's more than 350. Most of these martyrs and victims are children, women and elderly people who cannot afford to protect themselves," Mubarak said.

The figures cannot be independently confirmed.

Baghdad came under further bombardment today with a series of explosions reported throughout the morning and afternoon.

Yesterday, at least 14 people were killed and 30 injured in two explosions in a residential neighborhood that the Iraqi authorities blamed on a coalition air raid.

The U.S. said it had not targeted the area, and today a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, suggested it could have been an Iraqi antiaircraft missile that fell back to the ground.

In the south, British officials said they attacked 14 Iraqi tanks and their crews today that had broken out of Basra and were heading toward British troops on the Al-Faw Peninsula. It is not known how many Iraqis died in that attack. It was the latest in a series of attempts in the last three days by Iraqi forces to get out of Basra.

Admiral Michael Boyce, chief of the British Defense Staff said: "A squadron of 14 [British] Challenger II tanks of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards were heading south [today] toward the Al-Faw Peninsula to go and reinforce 3 Commando Brigade, and they came across 14 Iraqi T-55 tanks. The Scots Dragoon Guards Squadron engaged the Iraqi tanks whilst on the move and destroyed all 14, and none of our Challengers were damaged."

British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon said the recent discovery of about 100 chemical-protection suits and respirators in a southern Iraqi command post suggest that Iraq is prepared to use weapons of mass destruction. "We do have evidence that the Iraqi regime is prepared to use weapons of mass destruction. We already know from Iraqi prisoners of war that protective equipment was issued to southern Iraqi divisions. British forces have made significant discoveries in recent days, which show categorically that Iraqi troops are prepared for the use of such horrific weapons," Hoon said.

Britain's finance minister, Chancellor Gordon Brown, meanwhile, told Parliament he is setting aside more money to cover the cost of the war. Today's increase brings the total bill for Britain to some $4.7 billion, compared with the $75 billion U.S. President George W. Bush is seeking from Congress for war-related spending.

On the humanitarian front, there are signs that some aid is getting through to the south of Iraq. But Britain said today a ship with much needed water and food will not be able to unload in Umm Qasr for another 24 hours because of the danger of mines.

And a Red Crescent official in Kuwait described as a "disaster" the distribution of aid across the border yesterday. Vice Chairman Hilal al-Sayer told the BBC the aid was seized by young, healthy men before it could get to the people most in need.

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

Iraq has repeatedly accused the U.S. and Britain of causing the humanitarian crisis -- while the U.S. and Britain 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 Iraq's UN Ambassador Muhammad al-Duri called for the Security Council to end "the aggression."

The war, as well as humanitarian relief efforts and reconstruction plans, was expected to be the focus of talks today in the U.S. between Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.