NEAR AN NASIRIYAH, Iraq—The air war intensified Friday with earth-shattering power and reports of heavy civilian casualties, U.S. forces stepped up their air attacks on Iraq's Republican Guard and the Army's 101st Airborne Division flew into position to join a coming attack on Saddam Hussein's best troops.
More bombs fell on the Iraqi capital early Saturday. Initial reports spoke of a huge explosion near the headquarters of the Iraqi Ministry of Information in central Baghdad, one of a series of attacks on Iraq's communications network.
Allied warplanes and helicopters also pounded Republican Guard troops and other targets with more than 1,000 other bombing missions throughout Iraq.
"It's going to be great weather for the next week and God help our enemies," said Col. John Croley of Marietta, Ga., air coordination officer with the U.S. Marines' combat headquarters in southern Iraq.
U.S. officials said the stepped-up air campaign was intended to soften Iraqi positions in advance of an attack—as early as this weekend—on the Republican Guard divisions that stand between Army and Marine Corps troops and Baghdad.
The Guard's Medina division, about 8,000 strong, is believed to be near the Iraqi city of Karbala. To the east, the Guard's Baghdad division, also with 8,000 fighters, is attempting to block the Marines' advance toward the capital from the vicinity of Al Kut.
The Army's 3rd Infantry Division, with about 16,000 troops, could begin its attack on the Medina Division this weekend, after 36 hours of air attacks, and no later than Monday, according to U.S. officials.
To the south, however, the zeal of Iraqi resistance fighters and the mud of northern Iraq bogged down the ground war, and early on Saturday an Iraqi missile avoided detection and slammed into a pier near a major shopping mall in Kuwait City. Two people suffered minor injures in the attack, which caused modest damage to the Souq Sharq mall.
"It was a low-level missile that apparently went under the radar," said Jasimm al Mansouri, Kuwait City's fire chief. The missile struck at 1:42 a.m., and the mall and an adjacent movie theater were nearly deserted, he said.
At least 12 other missiles have been fired at Kuwait since the war began. U.S. Patriot air defense missiles intercepted most of them.
A new complication also arose: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld charged that Syria was allowing night-vision goggles and other military supplies to cross its border and reach the forces of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. He warned that it must stop.
"These deliveries pose a direct threat to the lives of coalition forces," Rumsfeld said. "We consider such trafficking as hostile acts and will hold the Syrian government accountable for such shipments." Syria denied involvement.
Rumsfeld also said that anti-Saddam Iraqi militants were crossing into Iraq from Iran, another unwelcome development. He said allied forces consider the Iranian-backed Islamic militants "a potential threat."
Rumsfeld did not directly threaten military action against either Syria or Iran.
In Baghdad, two 4,700-pound "bunker busters"—the heaviest bombs dropped since the Iraq war began 10 days earlier—crushed what U.S. officials described as communications facilities on Friday. Iraqi officials said several people were killed in that attack.
They also claimed that an air strike late Friday killed at least 58 people and wounded scores of others when bombs or missiles devastated a market in Baghdad's Shula neighborhood. The account could not be verified.
But as battle around Baghdad began to take shape, heavy fighting still raged in the rear, notably around An Nasiriyah, a city of 500,000, where U.S. Marines and particularly stubborn Iraqi forces engaged in a fierce, daylong battle.
Four Marines were reported missing in that engagement Friday and three other Marines were reported killed, one in combat and two in an accident.
Nearly 10,000 members of the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division joined U.S. positions around An Nasiriyah. The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, with 2,500 troops, augmented a 5,000-member Marine task force in the area.
Many more reinforcements flowed in. About 90,000 U.S. troops were in Iraq on Friday, and at least 100,000 more were on the way, according to the Pentagon.
Some good news arrived for civilians in southernmost Iraq, where the first ship carrying relief supplies worked its way through a de-mined channel and docked at Umm Qasr. The Sir Galahad, a British supply ship, carried at least 200 tons of food, water and other humanitarian aid.
Much of that was destined for Basra, a city of 1.3 million people just 40 miles away, yet unreachable. British forces still encircled the city amid reports that Iraqi fighters were continuing to fire on and otherwise intimidate Iraqi civilians.
"They are killing women and children," Faisal Abid Niser, 28, told a Knight Ridder reporter at a British outpost eight miles north of Basra. He was accompanied by his wife and two young daughters. "It was time to leave our home."
British officers said their troops fired mortars and artillery into Basra, and between 2,000 and 3,000 Basra residents dodged the fire as they escaped from Iraq's second-largest city.
Elsewhere in southern Iraq, persistent hit-and-run attacks on U.S. supply lines and positions seemed to substantiate the views of military officers who have been critical of the Pentagon's war plan. Their concerns spilled into the open on Thursday when Army Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, said the Iraqis have proven to be more stubborn—and the war more complex—than expected.
"The enemy we're fighting is different from the one we'd war-gamed against," he said, according to the New York Times and Washington Post.
Though Wallace's public comment reportedly angered many administration officials, Rumsfeld said he had not read them. "People see what they see and say what they say," he said.
At the White House, aides appeared displeased by criticism of the war plan. President Bush sought to project confidence about the outcome of what he called "a noble" effort against "Saddam Hussein and his murderous allies."
"The regime that once terrorized all of Iraq now controls a small portion of that country," Bush told a group of military veterans. "Coalition troops continue their steady advance and are drawing nearer to Baghdad. We're inflicting severe damage on enemy forces."
Many challenges remained, however.
In northern Iraq, the vanguard of the U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade struggled to establish a base camp in the knee-deep muck of muddy fields.
About 1,000 members of the unit parachuted into the region Wednesday night to help secure the northern flank and eventually open a new front in the war, but they were preceded by three days of rain.
"I trained in the swamps of Florida for two years and I've never seen mud like this," said Capt. Eric Blaus, 30, of Collingswood, N.J.
As he and other U.S. troops continued to secure their positions under snow-capped peaks, President Bush's special envoy to the region told local Kurdish leaders that more help was on the way.
"We are active in the north and we will continue to be active in the north," the U.S. diplomat, Zalmay Khalilzad, said in Salahaddin, the mountaintop stronghold of the Kurdistan Democratic Party.
U.S. bombers again rocked the northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk on Friday night. Knight Ridder reporters observed that Iraqi forces had withdrawn from two of the three security belts around Kirkuk and its oilfields.
In other developments:
_The Bush administration said Friday that it had foiled terrorist plots against U.S. interests in two countries by Iraqi operatives who posed as diplomats. A U.S. official who requested anonymity said the countries are Jordan and Yemen, and added that intelligence and law enforcement officers are now searching for other Iraqi-backed terrorists in nine other countries —Bahrain, Great Britain, India, Lebanon, Pakistan, Syria, Thailand, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
"In both cases, operatives were arrested and terrorist material confiscated," said Lynn Cassel, a State Department spokeswoman.
She and other U.S. officials declined to provide details, though one U.S. official, who requested anonymity, said: "One of the attacks could have been very serious if it had been carried out."
In Jordan, the intelligence official said the Iraqi cells apparently planned to bomb the Marriott hotel in Amman, the capital.
_Two F-15E jets struck what U.S. Central Command said was a "terror squad meeting" in Basra, destroying a building where 200 Iraqi paramilitaries were meeting.
The jets used laser-guided munitions with delayed fuses to prevent damage to a nearby church, defense officials said.
_The Department of Defense announced that Marine Maj. Kevin G. Nave, 36, of Union Lake, Mich., was killed Wednesday in a vehicle accident in Iraq. It released no further details. Nave was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, Camp Pendleton, Calif.
_Four Marines with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force were reported missing Friday after intense fighting near An Nasiriyah.
_In Tehran, the Iranian government staged the first major rally against both sides in the war, with tens of thousands of Iranians chanting "Death to America" and "Death to Saddam."
The state-organized protest followed Friday's noon prayers. At one point, in front of the British Embassy, demonstrators lobbed rocks and eggs at the compound, shattering 35 windows and damaging a Danish diplomat's car parked outside.
_The U.N. Security Council voted 15-0 to allow Secretary-General Kofi Annan to free up billions of dollars in Iraqi oil revenues to buy food, medicine and other necessities for Iraqi civilians. The vote will allow the U.N. to deliver $10 billion worth of goods, including $2.4 billion in food, that Iraq had ordered before the war as soon as conditions allow.
The program, which had been suspended, serves about 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people.
Said Gunter Pleuger, Germany's ambassador to the United Nations: "This was a good day for the United Nations, a good day for the Security Council and I hope a good day for the suffering people of Iraq."
(Tamayo of The Miami Herald is with the U.S. Marines in Iraq, Lasseter of the Lexington Herald-Leader is with the U.S. Army in Kuwait, Merzer of The Miami Herald reported from Washington. Also contributing to this report were Ken Dilanian of The Philadelphia Inquirer in Iraq; Tom Infield of The Philadelphia Inquirer at the Pentagon; Jonathan S. Landay and Mark MacDonald in northern Iraq; Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Tehran, Iran; Sudarsan Raghavan just outside Basra; Peter Smolowitz of The Charlotte Observer at allied headquarters in Qatar; Warren P. Strobel at the State Department; and Jeff Wilkinson of The (Columbia, S.C.) State in Kuwait City.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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