/ 27 March 2003

’36 killed’ in raids on Baghdad

Iraq said today that yesterday’s raids on Baghdad, including an apparent stray missile strike on a crowded market, had killed 36 Iraqi civilians.

Since the conflict began 350 civilians have been killed by US-led raids, said the Iraqi health minister, Umeed Madhat Mubarak. The 36 deaths had occurred over the last 24 hours, over which time 215 people had been wounded, he said.

Accusing the US and UK military of targeting civilians, Umeed told reporters that coalition attacks were aimed at breaking the spirit of the Iraqi people. He singled out the attack on the Baghdad suburb, where Iraqi residents were concentrated during a market, as a typical example of improper military actions. Fourteen people died in the bombing.

”They are targeting the human beings in Iraq to decrease their morale,” he said. ”They are not discriminating, differentiating.”

Mubarak said the total number of civilian casualties since the war began a week ago is more than more than 4 000, among them 350 dead.

He accused US and British forces of dropping cluster bombs on civilian targets. ”In Najaf, they destroyed a medical centre,” he said. ”They bombed an ambulance and killed its driver.”

The US has denied that it intentionally targeted the al-Shaab suburb in the north of the capital, but the Pentagon left open the possibility that a missile or bomb had gone astray.

US troops open northern front

Around 1 000 US soldiers parachuted into Kurdish-controlled territory in northern Iraq early today, forming the vanguard of a new front in the Iraq war.

US marine captain Stewart Upton said the troops, of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, dropped into the Harir airfield about 70 kilometres north-east of the main Kurdish city of Arbil around midnight.

”They established airfield operations to support a robust flow of follow-on forces,” he said.

A Pentagon official said several hundred special forces troops had been operating on the ground in northern Iraq earlier this week, to prepare the way for this morning’s landing.

Tanks, equipment and other armoured vehicles to support the division, known as the ”Sky Soldiers”, were expected to be delivered soon.

Harir airfield was built by the Iraqi regime 20 years ago but has not been used since the northern no-fly zone was imposed after the 1991 Gulf war. About 100 US soldiers and two transport helicopters were reported to be there this morning. Kurdish fighters were seen helping the US troops.

Pentagon officials confirmed that the air drop marked the beginning of a northern front, aimed at diverting Iraqi soldiers from concentrating their attacks on coalition forces advancing through southern Iraq.

Soldiers on the northern front will also aim to secure the key northern oil fields around the city of Kirkuk, as well as monitoring the tense situation between Kurdish and Turkish forces.

The US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said the air drop would increase the pressure on the Iraqi regime.

”We are increasing the number of forces in the country every day. We’re increasing them in the north, we’re increasing them in the south and we’re increasing them in the west,” he said.

US military planners were frustrated in their attempts to establish the crucial northern front early on in the conflict.

Plans to channel at least 60 000 troops through Turkey into northern Iraq were scuppered by Turkey’s refusal to allow US troops on its soil. Ankara denied permission for the US deployment following stiff public and parliamentary opposition to the plan.

US to send in more troops

At least 30 explosions struck Iraq’s capital overnight, amid reports that the US is sending in reinforcements to support forces struggling against stronger than expected resistance.

Tens of thousands of US forces today faced more resistance as they attempted to press on towards Baghdad. The Pentagon said the US armoured columns were preparing to fight a small Iraqi force heading towards them near Kerbala, about 110 kilometres from Baghdad.

Thirty US troops were wounded, two ”very seriously”, in a friendly fire incident in central Iraq last night.

ITV correspondent James Mates, reporting from Nassiriya, said that two small deployments, sent to deal with an Iraqi advance to the side of the main US position, ended up fighting each other.

”We have 30 wounded, two very seriously — though they are both expected to survive. But it has badly hit this battalion,” he said.

In Washington, the US announced it was flying 30 000 more troops to the Gulf, equipped with 200 Abrams main battle tanks, just days after military leaders insisted no reinforcements were needed to win the war. American military planners now reportedly fear the war to topple the Iraqi regime is likely to last for months.

Despite the rapid advances of US forces across Iraq over the last week, senior American military officers are now becoming convinced they will need considerably more combat power than is now on hand there and in Kuwait, the Washington Post reported today.

In public, US commanders insist the war is ”going to plan”. But the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, has now said it was becoming evident the war ”may take a little bit longer”.

British troops stem Basra breakout

In a fierce overnight battle, British troops in the south of the country destroyed an Iraqi column attempting to move out of Basra, according to British military officials.

The convoy of around 100 Iraqi tanks and armoured vehicles was engaged by warplanes and artillery as it travelled south down the al-Faw peninsula, now largely secured by British forces.

An army official said that ”a lot of the column was repelled and destroyed”.

It was unclear why the column left Basra and headed straight for the British positions, in what a television reporter in the area described as a ”suicidal” pullout.

”If they’re fleeing they’re going the wrong way. It’s pretty silly to go towards the Royal Marines,” a British military official told Reuters.

The breakout may have been an attempted counter-offensive, to take advantage of the raging sandstorms, or a retreat from a reported uprising against the Iraqi regime in Basra, an anti-Saddam Shia stronghold.

However, following yesterday’s reports of unrest in the city, it was unclear today how widespread the opposition was to the ruling Ba’ath party in Basra.

The UN has expressed alarm at the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the city, which British forces have declared a ”military target” but have been unable to take control of, due to sustained resistance.

Battle as Iraqis break out of Basra

Aid ship delayed as mine discovered

The first military aid shipment, carrying more than 200 tons of aid to Iraq, has been delayed by 24 hours.

The British ship Sir Galahad had been due to dock in the southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr today to deliver emergency food aid to desperate Iraqis, but has been delayed after more mines were found in the approaches to the port.

Air Marshal Brian Burridge, leader of the UK forces in Iraq, said the discovery of two mines in the channel leading to Umm Qasr last night ”illustrates his [Saddam’s] disregard for the welfare of his own people”.

Royal Navy minesweepers had cleared a passage into the port, but two mines were found outside the swept area and further work would have to be done to make the port safe for shipping, he said today.

The UN has already warned of a humanitarian crisis among Basra’s residents, who are being forced to drink water from puddles and rivers after the southern city’s main water processing plant was damaged during military action.

The delay comes two days after the port was declared secure following a sweep of the area by 42 Royal Marine Commando, although diehard Iraqis continue to hold out in the nearby town and industrial areas.

British, Australian and US divers then went to work with US-trained dolphins to clear the port and approaches for the Sir Galahad, which is to ferry aid from larger ships to the shore.

With much of southern Iraq without fresh water supplies, the military aid shipments are vital. British aid workers have predicted it could be weeks before it is safe enough for them to start work there.

Bush meets Blair in Washington

The US president, George Bush, and the prime minister, Tony Blair, were today assessing the progress of the war in Iraq after a week of fierce combat, amid growing signs that the Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, has dug in for a prolonged fight.

The US and British leaders, meeting at the Camp David presidential retreat, were also discussing plans to get humanitarian aid into Iraq and to rebuild the country after the war, as well as looking at how to repair now severely strained US-Europe relations.

Iraq fires missile at Kuwait

A Patriot missile shot down a missile fired at Kuwait from southern Iraq today, officials said.

Loud thuds were heard in Kuwait City, although the sounds could have been caused by the impacts of the Patriots on the incoming missiles.

Anger as dead British soldiers shown on TV

Footage of the bodies of two missing British soldiers have been shown by the Arab broadcaster al-Jazeera, to the condemnation of the British military.

The Ministry of Defence confirmed that the two dead soldiers were ”probably” the British servicemen who have been missing since their Land Rover was ambushed near Basra on Sunday. They were thought to have been attached to 7 Armoured Brigade, the Desert Rats.

”We have yet to undertake formal identification, but it is probable that these are the two personnel currently listed as missing,” the MoD said.

”The next of kin have been informed that these soldiers have now been categorised as missing believed killed. Our thoughts are with their families and friends.”

The MoD added that it was ”shocked and appalled” about the release of the pictures, which it described as a ”flagrant and disgraceful breach of the Geneva convention”. It urged media organisations not to become ”tools for Iraqi propaganda” by rebroadcasting them.

The TV footage also showed images of what Iraq claimed were two British PoWs. The MoD said it had no information on the identities of the men, shown looking dazed and disorientated. The Press Association reported that they were in fact Kenyan drivers from a supply column.

The number of British servicemen now confirmed dead has reached 22, with just four of those killed in military action. – Guardian Unlimited Â