clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

WAR: U.S. begins its ground assault

To the cheers of U.S. infantrymen, the first stage of the ground war opened Thursday with American howitzers and multiple-launch rocket systems firing at Iraqi troops.

The U.S. 3rd Infantry Division's artillery opened fire hours after an American airstrike started the hostilities. Maj. Gen. Bufourd Blount, the division commander, had said the artillery barrage would signal the first phase of the ground war against Iraq.

White light glowed in the sky as dozens of artillery shells were fired. Infantrymen who were between the howitzers and the Iraqi border cheered as the shells screamed overhead.

The ground war was launched about an hour after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld promised that "the days of the Saddam Hussein regime are numbered."

Rumsfeld, in his first news conference since the war began, said the United States had hit a senior Iraqi leadership position in its initial strikes. He offered no details, saying a damage assessment was pending.

The assault "was the first," he said. "It likely will not be the last."

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a massive assault on Iraq could begin later Thursday. An American-led invasion force of 300,000 troops was poised to strike on orders from President Bush.

Iraq responded within hours to the U.S. air attack, firing missiles Thursday toward American troops positioned just across its border with Kuwait. American and British soldiers in the region briefly donned gas masks or protective suits, but officers later said the missiles apparently were not armed with chemical or biological weapons.

None of the Iraqi missiles caused injuries or damage, and one was intercepted by a Patriot missile, according to U.S. officers.

Later Thursday, air raid sirens wailed repeatedly in Kuwait as U.S. military officials donned flak vests amid warnings that another volley of Scuds was possible.

As Rumsfeld spoke in Washington, orange flames were visible in the direction of the southern Iraqi oil center of Basra. Associated Press reporter Ross Simpson, embedded with a Marine unit in Kuwait, was told by a battalion commander that "three oil wells have been torched" in Iraq.

Rumsfeld said he had heard similar reports of the Saddam regime setting fire to oil wells. "Needless to say, it is a crime for that regime to be destroying the riches of the Iraqi people," he said.

The U.S. operation gained a boost, meanwhile, when Turkey's parliament Thursday approved U.S. military use of its airspace for the war on Iraq.

The government-backed proposal allows American warplanes based in Europe or the United States to cross Turkey to strike Iraq. The United States also could use Turkish airspace to transport troops into northern Iraq or to bring supplies to the region.

The U.S. launched its long-awaited war against Saddam on Wednesday night, targeting him personally with a barrage of cruise missiles and bombs as a prelude to invasion.

The opening salvo against Saddam was not the expected all-out aerial bombardment but a surgical strike seeking to eliminate the Iraqi leader and his inner circle even before an invasion. Saddam, in a TV appearance that U.S. officials said appeared to be delivered after the attack, assailed it as a "shameful crime," while President Bush said the world's security was at stake.

Bush was awake early, meeting with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice at 6 a.m. EST before heading to the Oval Office less than an hour later.

Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf said the U.S. strikes killed one person and hit a customs office and some empty Iraqi TV buildings, among other targets.

Fourteen people were treated at local hospitals, but none appeared linked to Saddam, Iraqi doctors said. The wounded reportedly included six members of a suburban Baghdad family who were eating breakfast and were hit by shrapnel, and an Iraqi television journalist.

The International Red Cross on Thursday confirmed one death and 14 wounded in the initial attacks.

In Baghdad, in the aftermath of the initial attack, the city was quiet and a few children rode bicycles or kicked soccer balls on the streets.

But as night fell, with the threat of another attack, the streets emptied as people rushed to find safe haven in shelters, their homes or the countryside.

Coinciding with the strikes on Baghdad, about 1,000 U.S. troops launched a raid on villages in southeastern Afghanistan, hunting for members of the al-Qaida terrorist network. The U.S. operation — triggered by radio transmissions intercepted from caves in the region — appeared to signal to Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants that war with Iraq would not mean any respite for them.

The State Department warned U.S. citizens abroad that they face increased danger of retaliatory terrorist actions and anti-American violence. The U.S. Embassy in Pakistan was shut down because of security concerns.

The first missiles hit targets in Baghdad shortly before dawn Thursday, less than two hours after Bush's deadline of 8 p.m. EST Wednesday for Saddam to yield power.

Bush briefly addressed the nation to announce that the war had begun. "I assure you, this will not be a campaign of half measures, and we will accept no outcome but victory," the president said.

U.S. and British troops massed in northern Kuwait welcomed news of the first strikes in the war that the United States calls Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"It's about time," said Lance Cpl. Chad Borgmann, 23, of Sidney, Neb., a member of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit. "We've been here a month and a week. We're ready to go."

The initial salvos against Baghdad consisted of 40 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from Navy ships in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, as well as precision-guided 2,000-pound bombs dropped from two F-117A Nighthawk stealth jets.

U.S. officials said the attacks were not a sign that the main air offensive against Iraq had begun but were approved by Bush in response to intelligence that Saddam and his sons, Qusai and Odai, might be sleeping in one of the targets.

About two hours after the cruise missiles hit, a subdued-looking Saddam appeared on Iraqi television in a military uniform. An initial review of the tape by U.S. officials indicated it was Saddam, not a double.

The fact that Saddam read from a steno pad indicated the speech was delivered after the strike because it was prepared in haste, the officials said.

"We promise you that Iraq, its leadership and its people will stand up to the evil invaders," he said. "They will face a bitter defeat, God willing."

Hundreds of armed members of Saddam's Baath Party and security forces took up positions in Baghdad after the attack.

State and local authorities intensified security measures, hoping to shield power plants, bridges and other facilities against possible retaliatory strikes. In New York City, police prowled streets with bomb-sniffing dogs, submachine guns and radiation detectors.

In other nations, reactions varied dramatically. Both Russia and China demanded an immediate halt to the military action, which Russian President Vladimir Putin called "a big political mistake." Religious parties in Pakistan called for a general strike to protest U.S. policy, and hundreds of stone-throwing anti-war protesters in Egypt clashed with riot police.

Support for Washington came from allies Britain and Japan, among others. Australia, which has contributed 2,000 soldiers to the U.S.-led force, said its warships and fighter jets were involved in combat support operations Thursday.

In Israel, civilians began carrying gas masks and air defense units were placed on highest alert to intercept any incoming Iraqi missiles.