BAGHDAD (Reuters)-US and British forces unleashed a massive air assault on Baghdad on Friday as invasion forces advanced swiftly toward the city–where President Saddam Hussein’s supporters dug in for a last stand.
Huge plumes of smoke rose from Baghdad as bombs and missiles slammed into one of Saddam’s palaces and other targets. Repeated explosions reddened the night sky and shook the ground in by far the biggest raid of the war.
A Reuters journalist saw fires raging in Saddam’s palace and other buildings.
A US official said it was the start of a major air war–dubbed by the Pentagon as "shock and awe.” A fleet of B-52 bombers had earlier been seen taking off from an airfield in southern England.
Iraq said Saddam had survived a US attempt to target him directly on Thursday. But rumors persisted that the Iraqi leader was dead. British and US officials said they did not know whether he was alive or dead.
Several big explosions were also heard around the city of Kirkuk in the north and anti-aircraft guns blasted the skies over Mosul.
US and British leaders said the campaign to oust Saddam was going according to plan but warned that the real battle still lay ahead.
Saddam has withdrawn his best trained and most loyal forces to Baghdad–where he may be planning to force invaders into dangerous and punishing street fighting in hopes of inflicting heavy casualties.
"The important thing is to get to Baghdad to prevent Saddam’s ability to effect any form of command–particularly over weapons of mass destruction,” Major General Albert Whitely–deputy commander of the US-British land forces–told Reuters in an interview.
MARINES SEIZE PORT
In a day of swift developmen’s–US Marines captured the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr while other troops seized two airfields in the Iraqi desert 140 and 180 miles (225 km and 290 km) west of the capital–part of a move to encircle Baghdad.
British Marines launched an amphibious and aerial assault and secured key oil installations at the head of the Gulf. Other British troops headed for the port of Basra.
There were unconfirmed reports that US special forces had secured the giant oilfields around Kirkuk in northern Iraq.
One US armored unit ran into Iraqi resistance that halted it temporarily near Nassiriya on the Euphrates river while it called for backup. The town is a main strategic crossing point over the Euphrates 235 miles (375 km) southeast of Baghdad.
The startling speed of a US advance from Kuwait deep into the Iraqi desert had prompted some British and American officers to predict a swift victory.
"We’re making progress,” President George W. Bush told lawmakers in the Oval Office. "We will stay on task until we’ve achieved our objective–which is to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and free the Iraqi people.”
But British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the war would not be won overnight and White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the conflict could still be "lengthy and dangerous.”
Reuters correspondent Andrew Gray–traveling with elemen’s of the US 3rd Infantry Division–said the unit had come under fire near Nassiriya. He saw US troops return fire with rockets. US officers said they expected soon "to go and join the battle.”
US Marines also met resistance when they attacked a key southern Iraqi port earlier in the day.
Iraqi ministers vowed to "incinerate” the invaders and asserted that Saddam had survived an early missile strike on a leadership bunker.
But Washington appeared to be holding much of its air power in reserve–apparently hoping that Iraqi resistance would collapse as invasion troops neared the capital. Commanders said the next 24 hours would be decisive.
British commandos took the Faw peninsula on Iraq’s southern tip–seizing oil export terminals–but Iraqi troops pinned down US Marines pushing toward the port of Umm Qasr for two hours before British artillery blasted the Iraqi defenses open.
US and British forces seized two boats off southern Iraq carrying 68 mines–military officials said.
In the first day of fighting–one US Marine was confirmed killed in action. Eight British and four US soldiers died in a helicopter crash in Kuwait. CNN on Thursday said a second Marine was killed.
Iraq ridiculed the claims of early US successes and predicted invasion forces would soon become bogged down.
"Baghdad will remain defiant and its walls will be an incinerator for the invaders,” said Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf.
Rapid US and British advances seemed to reassure oil markets. Britain’s most senior military officer said only seven oil wells had been set on fire by the Iraqis-not the 30 earlier reported-and that all key components of the southern oil fields were safe.
Widespread opposition to the war around the world showed no sign of abating. Thousands of protesters spilled onto the streets of some Arab capitals after Friday prayers and clashed with police.
In Cairo–at least 5,000 Egyptians protested against the war–gathering outside the city’s historic al-Azhar mosque. "Bush is the enemy of God,” shouted angry demonstrators.
Riot police contained similar protests in Beirut and Amman. Demonstrators also took to the streets in Australia and Greece.