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Thousands surrender as fury rains on Iraq

[Photo: AP]

The Baghdad sky fills with smoke Friday evening after a bombardment of the city. Detonations shook buildings miles away.

By DAVID BALLINGRUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 22, 2003

The United States launched a ferocious, around-the-clock aerial assault on military targets in Baghdad and other cities Friday, squeezing the Iraqi leadership and pressing for surrender.

Ground forces punched more than 100 miles into Iraq, and a division of the Iraqi army -- some 8,000 soldiers -- surrendered to coalition troops.

"Iraq's rulers are starting to lose control of their country," said Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

In Baghdad, shortly after 9 p.m. local time, the intense aerial attack lighted the night sky. Explosions spewed pink, red and brown hues, while bursts of antiaircraft fire winked overhead. Rumbling aftershocks rolled through the city.

One of the city's presidential compounds burned, while fierce antiaircraft fire erupted over the area of the al-Rashid military complex.

Soon after the strike began, sirens of emergency vehicles wailed through the deserted, but still-lit streets, although there were no immediate reports on the number of casualties. Iraqi radio was knocked off the air temporarily.

A huge explosion shook the center of Iraq's capital before dawn today. Aircraft could be heard overhead, but it was unclear what had been targeted. After the single blast, sirens presumably from ambulances or police cars could be heard racing racing through the city.

Rumsfeld said the objective was "to end the regime of Saddam Hussein by striking with force on a scope and scale that make clear to Iraqis that he and his regime are finished."

As signs of defeat mounted all around Friday, Iraqi Interior Minister Mahmoud Diab Ahmed, wearing a flak jacket, hunting knife and four ammunition clips, swung an AK-47 above his head and shouted: "Victory is definite, definite, definite!"

[Photo: AP]

Iraqi officials remained defiant, however, at least outwardly, with the interior minister appearing at a news conference waving a chrome-plated Kalashnikov rifle and wearing six ammunition clips in his vest.

"You may ask why I am dressed like this and why I have a gun. I took an oath to God that I will put my gun down only on the day of our victory," said Interior Minister Diab Ahmad.

The condition and whereabouts of Hussein himself, however, remained unknown.

Hoping to avoid a bloody, last-stand battle for Baghdad, the Bush administration tried Friday to entice Hussein into exile by signaling that the U.S. may not seek the unconditional surrender of Iraqi forces. Senior administration officials reiterated that the United States would accept the departure of the 65-year-old Iraqi dictator for asylum in an unspecified third country.

"I don't know how Saddam Hussein is feeling today," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said, adding that he had "nothing concrete" to confirm or deny rumors that Hussein had been wounded or killed.

President Bush told congressional leaders, "We are making progress. ... We will stay on task until we've achieved our objective."

The president watched the bombing of Baghdad on television Friday, then flew to the presidential retreat at Camp David, where he plans to hold a meeting of his "war council" today.

In other developments Friday:

-- In a move that could complicate the Pentagon's war planning, about 1,500 Turkish commandos crossed into Kurdish-controlled Iraq Friday night, apparently to keep Kurds from surging into Turkey. The action, following Turkey's agreement to allow U.S. planes to fly over its territory, sets up a potential clash between Turks and the Kurds. The Kurds have long opposed any Turkish attempt to control their population in northern Iraq.

-- Antiwar sentiment flared again in the United States, major European cities and across the Middle East and Asia. Police clashed with thousands of demonstrators trying to storm the U.S. Embassy in Yemen, leaving a police officer and two protesters dead. Meanwhile, 220 people were arrested in San Francisco, 65 in Chicago and 26 in Washington, D.C. Another two dozen were taken into custody near the White House for blocking traffic.

-- French President Jacques Chirac said he would veto any U.N. Security Council resolution that would allow the United States and Britain to administer a postwar Iraq. "That would justify the war after the event," he said.

Oil fields secured

"You train your whole career for this," said Army Staff Sgt. Steve Wright, 32, armed with a $150,000 Stinger missile and carrying 120 pounds of gear on his back

U.S. Marines, meanwhile, took control Friday of the strategic port of Umm Qasr in southern Iraq, and thousands of Marines and British soldiers dug in around the city.

Adm. Michael Boyce, chief of the British defense staff, told reporters in London the Marines control the city.

"Umm Qasr has been overwhelmed by the U.S. Marines and now is in coalition hands," Boyce said. "This port is a vital objective. ... It's going to become one of our main ways of getting humanitarian aid, hopefully within days ... into Iraq."

Located along the Kuwait border, Umm Qasr also will be useful for moving military supplies into Iraq. With control of the city, the Marines should more easily contend with Iraqi resistance in the south.

Two Marines were killed in that early fighting, according to the Pentagon. Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said U.S. troops thus far have faced "sporadic resistance."

U.S. and British troops have captured many key facilities in Iraq's southern oil fields, saving them from possible sabotage and ensuring their use for the country's postwar reconstruction, senior military officers said Friday.

American units advancing west of the southern city of Basra secured the Rumeila field, whose daily output of 1.3-million barrels makes it Iraq's most productive. Coalition forces also discovered that only seven oil wells were on fire in southern Iraq -- far fewer than officials had feared.

"All the key components of the southern oil fields are now safe," Boyce told reporters in London. "We have specialist civilian contractors on their way who will be in the area very shortly, in a day or two, to deal with the oil well fires."

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld told reporters that "only about 10 wells that we know of, out of possibly 1,000 in that area," had been damaged.

Other units moved into western airfield complexes, where Iraq was thought to have Scud missiles capable of reaching Israel and possibly weapons of mass destruction.
[Photo: AP]

An Iraqui woman welcomes U.S. Marines who rolled into the southern border city of Safwan on Friday. The city is still in shambles from the last Gulf War. The Marines had faced sporadic resistance from Iraqui troops.

In the southern town of Safwan, Marines hauled down giant street portraits of Hussein, and some local residents joined Maj. David Gurfein in a cheer. "Iraqi! Iraqi! Iraqi," he yelled, pumping his fist in the air.

One military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said U.S. Navy SEAL commandos took control of two terminals in the Persian Gulf where Iraqi oil can be loaded onto huge tanker ships. At least one of the terminals contained explosives not yet wired for detonation, the official said.

-- Information from the Times wire services was used in this report.

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