Archive for Wednesday, April 9, 2003

U.S. tightens Baghdad grip

Marines discover bloodied American Army uniforms in Iraqi prison

April 9, 2003

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— U.S. Marines captured Baghdad's second airport along with large sections of its eastern suburbs as they extended American control in the Iraqi capital Tuesday, and Army tanks attacked government buildings and repelled a series of sharp counter-attacks near the center of the city.

Hours after punching their way into the capital, the Marines took over a prison where they discovered a number of bloodied U.S. Army uniforms, along with chemical weapons suits, which might have belonged to captured Americans.

Members of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force seized the Rasheed military airport after destroying tanks and armored personnel carriers in front of the air base and behind it, said Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar.

He said controlling the base, along with capturing Baghdad airport last week, would help prevent the escape of high-ranking Iraqi officials as forces loyal to President Saddam Hussein turned increasingly to fierce urban combat in areas where the officials were hiding.

In southern Iraq, British and U.S. commanders said they had cleared the last pocket of resistance from Basra and that British troops who now controlled the country's second-largest city had begun talks with local representatives about forming a provisional government.

The increased allied control of Iraq gave American commanders a growing sense that victory was in sight. With Army troops and Marines inside Baghdad, Special Forces to the north, a large element of Marines to the southeast and two big Army units to the southwest, one officer noted that time seemed to be running out for Saddam and his government.

U.S. officials said they did not know whether the Iraqi leader or his sons Uday and Qusai had been killed in the heavy bombing of a residential neighborhood Monday where the CIA said the three had been meeting with officials of their intelligence service. One officer said they might have been "vaporized."

In Tuesday's fighting, the Marines suffered 11 casualties, including one death. Three American planes were hit by ground fire. Two managed to return to their bases, but the third, an A-10 Warthog attack jet, crashed at the main Baghdad airport. The pilot ejected and was saved by U.S. rescue crews.

Journalists killed

At one point, shortly before noon, the battle turned deadly for non-combatants.

American tanks on one of the bridges across the Tigris River fired a round into the Palestine Hotel, where many of the foreign journalists covering the war live and work. The tanks fired another round into offices of the pan-Arab television news network Al Jazeera.

The news bureau of Abu Dhabi television also was hit.

Three journalists -- cameraman Taras Protsyuk with the Reuters news agency, cameraman Jose Couso with Spain's Tele 5 television, and correspondent Tarik Ayoub with Al Jazeera -- were killed. Three others were wounded.

Journalists strenuously rejected the initial explanation provided by military officials at Central Command that the Americans had fired only after receiving small arms fire from the hotel lobby. The journalists said tank rounds had hit the 15th floor.

U.S. spokesman Brooks called the incident "most unfortunate indeed" and insisted: "We certainly know that we don't target journalists."

A reporter for the Los Angeles Times, traveling with the tank unit that mounted the fire, said there appeared to have been confusion about the location of attackers. In addition, commanders of the tank unit had received intelligence that Iraqi spotters had climbed to the rooftops of buildings in the area to direct fire onto the tank positions.

At about that time, the Times reporter said, someone -- possibly a journalist -- in the upper stories of the Palestine Hotel was spotted looking out at the tanks through binoculars. The tank round that crashed into the 15th floor of the hotel was fired shortly afterward.

A few hours later, officers in the 4th Battalion of the 64th Armored Regiment reportedly engaged in a long discussion to differentiate between the Palestine Hotel and the Iraqi Intelligence Ministry across the Tigris.

At one point, an Associated Press reporter attached to the tank unit telephoned his colleagues at the Palestine and asked them to hang a sheet out a window to make it clear which building was the hotel.

Hospitals overwhelmed

Tuesday's attack on the journalists highlighted a far larger problem: civilian casualties throughout the city. The Iraqis estimated that about 1,250 civilians have been killed and more than 5,000 wounded in the war. That toll was expected to rise sharply as urban fighting intensified.

Hospitals in Baghdad were reported to be overwhelmed with the wounded. A spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross said the large Al Kindi hospital was admitting an average of 10 new wounded each hour.

Nine or 10 civilians reportedly were killed in the air attack that targeted Saddam and his sons, and four others were wounded.

Counter-attacks repelled

In the battle for central Baghdad, the 1st Marine Division overcame stiff resistance from Iraqi units in bitter fighting at a bridge over the Diyala River. Iraqi armor on the west side of the river was destroyed and many of the defenders fled.

By nightfall, the Marines, driving from the southeast, were deep inside Baghdad.

Not far away, tanks from the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division attacked several government buildings and spread out in what U.S. military sources said was a deliberate attempt to humiliate the Saddam regime and demonstrate its inability to defend the center of the capital.

On the target list were headquarters of Saddam's controlling Baath Party, as well as his Intelligence and Justice ministries and the headquarters of his Special Republican Guard.

In their battle for the bridge, the Marines rolled past burned out armored vehicles with bodies scattered across a broad area. The smell of corpses and ammunition was overpowering.

The defenders included a mix of Republican Guard soldiers and paramilitary fedayeen fighters loyal to Saddam, Marine commanders said.

At the bridge, the Marines took sniper fire from the tops of buildings. One Marine was killed and six were wounded, according to Lt. Col. Pete Owen, executive officer of the 1st Marine Regiment.

After crossing the bridge, Owen said, his troops engaged in two prolonged firefights in urban areas of Baghdad. "We're stumbling on pockets of resistance," he said. "We may need to go block by block."

The Marines took four casualties inside the city, all from sniper fire.

Marine troops were receiving help from residents, however, said Brig. Gen. John Kelly, the deputy commander of the 1st Marine Division. He said the residents were pointing out individual Iraqis he called "regime goons."

The Marines said they were avoiding the use of some types of cluster ammunition because of possible danger to civilians and to their own troops.

In the city, the Marines found sophisticated fighting holes, tunnels and concrete-lined bunkers, along with caches of food and ammunition. Some of the supplies were mismatched and appeared to be in poor condition.

At some of the defense positions, the Marines found Iraqi uniforms and officer berets, which they took as souvenirs, along with AK-47 assault rifles and some eating utensils.

Targeting 'the big one'

In the Mansour neighborhood of Baghdad, where U.S. forces had targeted Saddam and his sons, four one-ton bombs dropped by a U.S. B-1B warplane left a smoking crater 60 feet deep.

"What we have for battle damage assessment right now is essentially a hole in the ground, a site of destruction where we wanted it to be, where we believed high-value targets were," Army Maj. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, vice director of operations for the Joint Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon.

But, McChrystal added, "We do not have hard battle damage assessment on exactly what individual or individuals were on the site" when the bombs hit. The site is in a "hostile area," another military official said on condition of anonymity, and U.S. forces have not been able to sift through the rubble and test any remains.

After the bombing, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said, orders from the Iraqi command were still being issued to key elements of its military.

"There are still some orders being given by somebody," Clarke said.

Among the units still operating, McChrystal said, were parts of the Republican Guard who appeared to be following orders, possibly from Saddam.

In a telephone interview with reporters at the Pentagon, Lt. Col. Fred Swan, the weapons system officer on the B-1B, said his bomber had just finished refueling in the air over western Iraq when it received its order to fly to the Mansour district.

Twelve minutes later, Swan said, it dropped the four bombs.

Two were standard versions of what is known as the 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munition, also called the GBU-31, he said, while the others were special bunker-buster versions that penetrate a target before detonating. Early reports had misidentified all four as bunker-busters.

Swan said an airborne air controller had told the crew that its target might be "the big one." They took that to mean Saddam.

"We thought it was (him), given everything we heard," Swan said.

He said the B1-B crew did not look at the target after the bombs were released, from 20,000 feet.

But one military official said if Saddam was in the building when it was hit, it is unlikely that he could have survived.

"With what we hit him with, it would have vaporized him," the official said.

Basra leadership

In Basra, British Maj. Gen. Robin Brims met with a local tribal leader to talk about a provisional government for the province, said Lt. Col. Chris Vernon, a British military spokesman.

He did not identify the leader. "He does have authority," Vernon said. "We have heard of him. We came away with the conclusion that he was reliable."

British officials said they hoped for the formation of a broad-based local government, including members of different ethnic groups. They said the tribal leader would consider including some members of the Baath Party.

The British also spoke with former policemen in Basra about reestablishing an unarmed local police force to control looting.

British officials said they do not condone the looting, but do not find it surprising after decades of repressive rule. They said they lacked the manpower and mandate to become a civilian police force themselves.

The British sent 10 large water trucks into the streets of Basra and stood guard, trying to keep order as people lined up to fill jugs and buckets.

In northern Iraq, U.S. Special Forces, working with Kurdish fighters and close allied air support, applied persistent pressure against Iraqi defenses. Brooks said these forces, operating near the city of Irbil, killed Iraqi infantry and destroyed tanks and armored personnel carriers.

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