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Coalition air campaign strikes Iraqi anti-aircraft missiles, Republican Guard targets

MARINE COMBAT HEADQUARTERS, Iraq—Marines boasted Sunday that U.S. strikes on Baghdad's brawny anti-aircraft Missile Engagement Zone have reduced it from a "Super MEZ" to "just a MEZ" and opened the skies for even more punishing raids.

But some of the elite Republican Guard divisions ringing the capital are being reinforced almost as quickly as they lose casualties to the U.S.-led coalition's air, artillery and helicopter attacks, military authorities said.

Meanwhile, two Marine columns in central Iraq moved so little over the weekend that 90 percent of the aircraft assigned to protect their front lines were redirected to attack Republican Guard and regular army targets.

The fourth day of blue skies since a blinding sand storm was a boon to the air campaign, said Lt. Col. Brian Delahaut, liaison between the Marines' combat headquarters in southern Iraq and the 3rd Marine Air Wing based in Kuwait.

Delahaut said the U.S. and British attacks on Baghdad's complex network of Soviet-designed anti-aircraft missiles, described by analysts as the world's densest, have taken a significant bite out of its air defenses.

Delahaut added that the damage allows Allied bombers to fly lower and would permit low-flying ground attack jets to go "to the outer limits of Baghdad itself."

Jets, which now mostly stay more than 26,000 feet over Baghdad, will be able to fly lower, Delahaut said, improving the accuracy of their strikes and obtaining clearer photographs from their gun cameras.

Baghdad's missile batteries have been largely ineffective so far because their crews have not been turning on their search radars out of fear of revealing their locations to U.S. counter-radar HARM missiles, the colonel said.

"They learned in the (1991) Gulf War. They light the radar up and we're going hit `em," said Delahaut.

Instead, the Iraqis are firing their missiles without ground guidance, hoping the missiles' own guidance systems will lock on to coalition aircraft and score a lucky hit, he said.

Iraq's air force has not flown a single plane or helicopter mission since the war started 10 days ago, Delahaut said in an interview at the Marines' combat headquarters in the southern Iraqi desert.

Delahaut also said Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is reinforcing some of his Republican Guard divisions guarding the southern approaches to his capital faster than the Allies are attacking them.

One division was reported down to 70 percent of its fighting capabilities on Saturday night, then at a higher level Sunday morning with the addition of reinforcements from other divisions, he said.

Another Guard division is now considered degraded enough to be hit by attack helicopters, he added, while another may require more than three days of air and artillery attacks to weaken it.

The two Marine columns lined up in central Iraq for the next stage of the war reported little combat Sunday as they fanned out to the sides of nearby roads to clear potential Iraqi ambush sites.

Delahaut said 69 of the Marine Air Wing's planned close-air support missions were diverted to targets in the Republican Guard's Baghdad and al Nida divisions and the Army's 10th Armored Division around the southeastern city of al Amara.

In the northern Iraq city of Sherawa, Kurdish guerrillas danced and celebrated Sunday as they swarmed over abandoned Iraqi bunkers and checkpoints.

Cowering from several days of heavy American bombing, including strikes by B-52s, Iraqi troopers on the Kurdish border retreated about five miles south toward oil-rich Kirkuk, one of the most important assets in the war.

The bombers also struck repeatedly at positions around Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, where two divisions of the Republican Guard are based.

Ominously, the guerrillas who took over the Sherawa checkpoint discovered a number of gas masks in the Iraqis' stone-and-earthen bunkers, which looked like something out of the U.S. Civil War.

Guerrilla commanders said, however, that there was no evidence of chemical weapons in the bunkers or checkpoints.

Before the Iraqis retreated, they planted some 1,800 Iraqi- and Italian-made land mines. Guerrilla teams spent Sunday digging up and exploding most of the mines. One guerrilla commander had his right arm blown off in the de-mining operation.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.