© St. Petersburg Times, published March 21, 2003
Allied forces crossed into southern Iraq on Thursday after a thundering barrage of artillery that signaled the start of war on the ground.
Meanwhile, a U.S. Marine helicopter crashed in Kuwait on Thursday, killing all 16 American and British marines aboard. The crash of the CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter killed four U.S. and 12 British troops, officials said. The helicopter was assigned to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
The helicopter crashed at 7:37 p.m. EST in Kuwait, about 9 miles away from the border with Iraq. The crash is being investigated, but officials said hostile fire had not been reported in the area.
The opening of the ground war came as U.S. officials speculated as to whether Saddam Hussein was dead or alive, and as Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld hinted that secret talks with the Iraqi military have delayed the start of a massive aerial assault.
"We still hope" the Iraqi leadership can be replaced "without the full force and fury of a war," Rumsfeld said after meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Under cover of darkness, and with the support of heavy bombing, the 1st Marine Division entered Iraq about 1 p.m. EST, or 9 p.m. local time. Traveling north in armored vehicles, the Marines encountered some resistance from "rear guard" Iraqi units. They opened fire with machine guns on an Iraqi T-55 tank and destroyed it with a Javelin, a portable antitank missile.
To the north, U.S. and British forces bombed limited targets in Baghdad, setting fire to a presidential palace and at least one government building.
But it seemed late Thursday that the massive onslaught that would signal all-out war was being withheld. "The days of the Saddam Hussein regime are numbered," Rumsfeld confidently predicted. But, he said, there was "no need for a broader conflict" if Iraqi leaders surrender.
At a Pentagon news briefing earlier in the day, Rumsfeld suggested that Iraqis were turning against Hussein. He said U.S. forces were in contact with Iraqi military officials at various levels who see the fate that awaits Hussein.
"Once they are persuaded that regime is history," Rumsfeld said, "then their behavior begins to tip and change. ... (W)e have broad and deep evidence that suggests that there are people going through that decisionmaking process throughout that country today, and that is a good thing."
Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Largo, said U.S. officials did not know if Hussein had been killed in the opening hours of the war Wednesday night. But, Young said, even if Hussein is alive, "we know his ability to have complete control of his military operation has been severely degraded."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said officials had reached no conclusion as to whether a man in military garb shown on state-run television was the Iraqi leader or a double.
A senior U.S. official said the strikes against the security-conscious leader had almost certainly had strong impact, whether he is injured or not. He cannot trust anybody, even his inner circle, the official said.
In other developments Thursday:
-- Oil well fires, possibly set by the Iraqis, shot flames hundreds of feet in the air and choked the sky with black smoke.
-- Turkey granted the U.S. military permission to use its airspace Thursday, a measure that makes it easier for U.S. bombers based in Europe to strike Iraq, and for U.S. transport and supply aircraft to move troops and war materiel to the region.
But the step falls far short of Washington's original request to send 62,000 soldiers to Turkey to open up a northern front to divide the Iraqi army.
Potentially more troublesome is that Turkey's parliament authorized sending troops into northern Iraq, a move U.S. officials had sought to discourage because it could lead to clashes between Turkish troops and Iraqi Kurds.
-- Antiwar activists lighted candles in dozens of cities Thursday, created major disruptions in Philadelphia and San Francisco and blocked a bridge in Washington.
There were also large antiwar demonstrations at U.S. embassies around the world and the State Department warned U.S. citizens abroad of an increased danger of terrorism.
-- At the White House, President Bush summoned his Cabinet to a midafternoon meeting to discuss the war, and to encourage them to press on with his domestic agenda. He will not be involved in hour-by-hour management of the war, Fleischer said.
The president "is not going to be a play-by-play commentator" on the war, Fleischer said.
In brief remarks to reporters, Bush said, "There's no question we've sent the finest of our citizens into harm's way. They performed with great skill and great bravery. ... We appreciate their sacrifice."
Portions of Baghdad erupted in flames Thursday, a telltale sign that American missiles found their marks.
It was the second straight night that cruise missiles and bombs fell on the city. This time, officials said the targets included facilities of the Special Republican Guard and the Special Security Organization. The organization, run by Hussein's younger son, Qusay, oversees most security and intelligence activities in Iraq.
Red and white antiaircraft tracers lit the night sky and a huge plume of smoke rose from the west bank of the Tigris River in central Baghdad.
A senior defense official with direct knowledge of the operation said about two dozen Tomahawk missiles were fired from two American and two British submarines, plus one American surface ship. The vessels were in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea.
Iraqi troops responded to the attacks with antiaircraft fire and reportedly launched at least 10 surface-to-air missiles into Kuwait, resulting in no deaths or damage. Marines were the first to enter Iraq from the south where they were greeted with enemy fire.
Movement was apparent on the first day. The 101st Airborne, out of Fort Campbell, Ky., slowly trudged through the Kuwaiti desert toward Iraq. Before they left Camp New Jersey, air raid sirens sounded alerts three times but the Scud missiles coming from the Iraq side had little effect -- other than to jangle nerves among U.S. troops.
The weather report, one commander quipped, called for "partly sunny, chance of intermittent Scud attacks throughout the day."
At one air base in the Persian Gulf, waves of armed F-16 fighters were launched by personnel adorned in full chemical gear -- a precaution against potential Iraqi gas attacks.
A reporter for The Times of London reported that Royal Marine Commandos had also crossed into southern Iraq. According to this account, hundreds of British troops had attacked "Red Beach" at the head of the Persian Gulf.
The British Marines were supported by a bombardment across the Khawr Abd Allah, the river estuary that separates Bubiyan Island in Kuwait from Iraq, according to the report.
By taking southern Iraq, the allies would command access to the Persian Gulf and set the stage for the first major conquest on the way to Baghdad -- Basra, Iraq's second largest city, just 20 miles from the Kuwait border.
None of the forces apparently encountered chemical or biological weapons.
Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush's strongest ally in the war effort, went on television to tell his country that British forces were engaged from air, land and sea.
The Kuwait News Agency, quoting an unidentified Kuwaiti army source, said American and British troops captured the southern Iraqi city of Umm Qasr and hundreds of Iraqi soldiers had surrendered.
But Iraq's Al-Shabab TV denied that Umm Qasr was captured, saying Iraqi and allied forces exchanged artillery and rocket fire across the Kuwaiti border.
-- Information from Times wires was used in this report.