Crash Kills 12 British, U.S. Troops

Ground War Starts, Airstrikes Continue As U.S. Keeps Focus on Iraq's Leaders

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Susan B. Glasser
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 21, 2003

KUWAIT CITY, March 20 -- U.S. and British ground forces punched into Iraq across a broad front tonight after a booming artillery barrage, seizing territory along the Kuwaiti border with only modest resistance and pushing on toward the key southern city of Basra. While the sweeping land invasion began under a hazy desert moon, a second torrent of U.S. cruise missiles destroyed several buildings in Baghdad.

The long-awaited ground war started a day earlier than planned because of President Bush's decision to launch the "decapitation" attack on the Iraqi leadership early this morning, U.S. officers said. Although the invasion was clearly underway after months of buildup, U.S. defense officials characterized the movements as the first step in a much more massive push toward President Saddam Hussein's headquarters in the Iraqi capital.

In strikes designed to weaken Iraq's leadership, 24 Tomahawk missiles were launched tonight against Baghdad-area strongholds of the Special Republican Guard, Iraq's most elite military unit, as well as at the grounds of Hussein's main presidential palace and offices used by Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz. The Tomahawks followed a 36-missile volley early this morning aimed directly at Hussein and his top lieutenants.

Iraq retaliated by firing back at the U.S. invasion force assembled in Kuwait, sending missiles southward intermittently throughout the day and into the night; at least three of the missiles were intercepted by U.S. Patriot antimissile batteries. Soldiers and Kuwaiti civilians alike returned repeatedly to shelters, but no casualties were reported.

[The first known U.S. or British military casualties were reported early Friday, however, in the crash of a Marine CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter in the Kuwaiti border area just south of the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr, at the head of the Persian Gulf. Marine officers said the aircraft, carrying four U.S. crew members and eight British Royal Marines, went down after encounter- ing haze from burning oil as it sought to reinforce a British position on the Faw peninsula. All aboard were reported killed.]

The ground assault began early this evening with a massive burst of 155mm artillery, mortar and rocket fire that rumbled for hours across northern Kuwait, shaking houses miles away and prompting eager U.S. soldiers to cheer as the shells flew overhead.

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