Army airborne forces parachuted into northern Iraq yesterday, seizing an airfield for a new front against Saddam Hussein. U.S. and British warplanes bombed an enemy convoy fleeing the besieged city of Basra in the south.
One week into the war, the possibility of a major battle loomed within 100 miles of Baghdad as another convoy – this one made up of elite Republican Guard forces – moved in the direction of American troops aiming for Saddam’s seat of power.
Jumping from low-flying planes into the Iraqi night, an estimated 1,000 paratroopers landed near an airstrip in Kurdish-controlled territory less than 30 miles from the Turkish border.
Hundreds of miles to the south, the unchallenged bombing of Iraqi forces leaving Basra raised hopes that ground troops could soon enter the city, feared at risk for a humanitarian crisis.
The military developments unfolded as the first humanitarian delivery of supplies rolled into southern Iraq, greeted at the border by hungry children.
With American and British forces massing to the south, west and now the north of Baghdad, the Iraqi regime kept much of the news from its own people. Instead, it emphasized a claim that two American cruise missiles had killed 14 civilians in Baghdad and wounded dozens more.
“This war is far from over,” President Bush said in a quick trip to the Florida headquarters of U.S. Central Command, which is overseeing the war. Still, he said victory was only a matter of time, adding, “There will be a day of reckoning for the Iraqi regime, and that day is drawing near.”
Bush later flew to the Camp David presidential retreat for a meeting today with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, his partner in the Iraq invasion.
Swirling sandstorms hampered American units for a second day. The bombing campaign was crimped as well, but Baghdad television was knocked off the air for several hours, and explosions were heard, as well, near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in the north.
Lt. Col. Thomas Collins, spokesman for the U.S. Army Southern European Task Force, confirmed that paratroopers were on the ground, many of them elite Rangers.
“I can only tell you yes, they’ve gone in. They’re on the ground,” he said.
Other officials said tanks, other vehicles and supplies would be airlifted in behind them.
American commanders had hoped to move a large force into northern Iraq from Turkey. But the Turkish parliament refused to allow that, and the parachute drop was the beginning of an alternative plan.
U.S. and British warplanes, as well as ground units, hit the column leaving Basra. A British military source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the column included as many as 120 tanks and other armored vehicles.
The Pentagon’s No. 2 general, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, said that Iraq has executed prisoners of war in the week since the war began. Pace, apparently referring to some of the U.S. Army troops captured Sunday by Iraqi forces in the city of An Nasiriyah, said Iraqis had engaged in many atrocities in the six days since the war began.
Iraq, in turn, accused U.S. and British forces of “kidnapping civilians, shackling them, and regarding them as POWs.”
Irregular Iraqi troops have prevented British troops from entering Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city and site of a reported uprising by local civilians against Saddam’s defenders. International aid officials have repeatedly expressed fears of an outbreak of disease, given the interruption of power and water supplies.
Details were sketchy as well about Iraqi troop movements to the north. Some officials said a huge convoy of perhaps 1,000 vehicles and members of Saddam’s elite Republican Guard were moving south, in the direction of Marines making their way toward the capital.
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a “few vehicles” were moving south toward Karbala, site of a major land battle on Tuesday. “They’re being engaged as we find them,” he said.
U.S. officials blame the Fedayeen units for much of the resistance that has hampered the American-led advance through Iraq, accusing them of faking surrender only to shoot Americans and enforcing discipline among regular Iraqi army troops who may be less willing to fight.
One Defense Department official said commanders were surprised by the Fedayeen’s capability and military commanders were changing their tactics.
“We’re going into a hunting mode right now,” said Marine Lt. Col. B.T. McCoy in Iraq.
Iraqi officials said 30 civilians were injured, some badly, when two American missiles landed in a residential Baghdad neighborhood.
Associated Press Television News video showed bodies wrapped in plastic sheeting in the back of a pickup truck and streets that had flooded after water pipes ruptured. Flames rose above burning buildings, mixing with smoke from fires Iraqis have lit to try to obscure targets for American combat pilots.
American military officials issued a statement saying that civilian damage was “possible” after an aerial attack aimed at nine Iraqi surface-to-surface missiles. “The missiles and launchers were placed within a civilian residential area,” it said.
The first sizable relief convoy rolled across the border toward the southern port city of Umm Qasr, laden with water, boxes of tuna, crackers, sweets and other food.
Children greeted the trucks as they rumbled into Iraq from Kuwait. Among them was a boy of about 10 who pointed to his mouth and shouted “Eat, eat.”
In the border town of Safwan, the arrival of a relief convoy from the Kuwait’s Red Crescent Society triggered fighting among young Iraqis, some shoeless and dirty, over the white boxes of supplies.