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Iraq: Sandstorms Over, Allies Resume Campaign

Washington, 28 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Putting two days of sandstorms behind them, U.S. and British warplanes have resumed their punishing attacks throughout Iraq and have delivered much-needed supplies to coalition forces.

The allies mounted more than 600 bombing missions yesterday, many of them directed at Saddam Hussein's Republican Guards, who have created a defensive ring around the capital Baghdad.

In the north, aircraft delivered weapons, ammunition, and food to U.S. troops who were recently reinforced by about 1,000 paratroopers. This force, being increased day by day, will make up the coalition's northern front in the drive against Baghdad.

In the south, British units laying siege to Basra used air and artillery bombardment to destroy 14 Iraqi tanks that emerged from the city. Marshal Brian Burridge, the commander of British forces in the Persian Gulf, summarized the action during a news briefing yesterday in the Qatar, where the war is being directed. "A column of Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles left Basra [on 26 March] 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 airpower," Burridge said.

Despite the successful assault outside, Britain's siege of Iraq's second-largest city continues.

Although the weather has cleared and the allies have resumed their offensive, questions remained about the progress of the war. After the first three days of hostilities, in which U.S. and British forces faced virtually no resistance, they have been beset by regular and irregular Iraqi troops. And they still face the Republican Guards outside Baghdad.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was asked whether the United States and Britain had planned for enough troops to go against the Iraqi armed forces. In a brief exchange with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington yesterday, Rumsfeld said the original coalition plan for the war is sound and that more troops are on their way to Iraq, as envisioned months ago. "Every day, the number of coalition forces in Iraq is increasing by one [1,000] or two [2,000] or 3,000 people, and it's going to continue to that, and we have plenty of forces in route," Rumsfeld said.

But he added that he has no illusions about the difficulties that coalition forces will face when they finally engage the Republican Guards as they close in on Baghdad. He said he believes Hussein's regime will not fall until that battle has been won.

Although allied warplanes continued bombing Baghdad yesterday, it was the explosion in a market in the capital on 26 March that remained the focus of attention. Iraqi officials say the explosion, which killed more than a dozen civilians, was the result of a coalition missile or bomb. U.S. military officials say they had no targets in the area of the explosion and that it could have been caused by an Iraqi antiaircraft artillery shell that fell back to earth. They even suggested that the Iraqi government deliberately set an explosion as a provocation.

U.S. Army Brigadier General Vincent Brooks told a briefing yesterday in Qatar that the incident is still under investigation, but he added: "The best we can do at this point is account for everything we did, and we have accounted for our weapons systems that we fired on the night. They hit their target, we are certain of that, and the rest of the story we just don't know."

This did not stop the accusations from Baghdad that both the United States and Britain had deliberately targeted civilians in what it called a vain effort to weaken their support for Hussein.

Iraqi Health Minister Umid Midhat Mubarak cited the worsening hygiene in besieged Basra as an example of coalition forces' attempt to break the spirit of the Iraqi people. He told reporters yesterday in Baghdad: "Until now, the situation of the infectious diseases in Basra and in other governorates which were targeted regarding these pollution are very serious, and they are targeting the human beings in Iraq to decrease their morals and their efficiency, but, of course, this is in vain."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair replied in kind during a news conference at Camp David, the U.S. presidential retreat outside Washington, where he and President George W. Bush just concluded a summit on Iraq and related issues. Blair accused Hussein and his senior aides of a variety of war crimes and crimes against humanity. "Day by day, we have seen the reality of Saddam's regime: his thugs prepared to kill their own people, the parading of prisoners of war, and now the release of those pictures of executed soldiers. If anyone needed any further evidence of the depravity of Saddam's regime, this atrocity provides it."

At the news conference, Blair and Bush urged the United Nations oil-for-food program to restart immediately. The program was suspended when UN workers were evacuated more than a week ago as war approached.

Under the program, Hussein's government is permitted to sell as much oil as it wants, as long as most of the money is used to buy food, medicine, and other necessities for Iraq's 22 million people. More than half of the country's population get their food from the program.

Blair said that during their talks, he and Bush also agreed to call for new UN resolutions that would ensure humanitarian relief to the Iraqi people, lay out some elements of a postwar administration for Iraq, and ensure the country's territorial integrity.

It is unclear exactly how great a role the United Nations might have in postwar Iraq. Blair is reported to want to involve the world body deeply in the country's reconstruction. Bush, however, is said to be interested in limiting any UN role in postwar Iraq to humanitarian aid, leaving military and political administration to coalition partners.