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War in Iraq claims first blood

U.S. and British forces rolled into Iraq yesterday, starting the ground invasion, but they also suffered their first casualties.

A CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter crashed in Kuwait around 7:40 p.m. New York time, killing all 12 on board. Casualty figures, which originally stood at 16, were revised early this morning.

Four of the men were American, the rest British, U.S. military officials said. There was no immediate word on whether the chopper was shot down or crashed accidentally.

In separate incidents, two U.S. Marines have died in the attack on Iraq, the U.S. Central Command said Friday - becoming the first allied combat casualties of the war.

The first Marine, from the 1st Marine Division, died early Friday after leading his infantry platoon in a firefight to secure an oil pumping station in southern Iraq.

The Marine was wounded while battling a platoon of Iraqi infantry and was transported by helicopter to a surgical company in Kuwait.

The second Marine, from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, died Friday at about 4 p.m. while fighting enemy Iraqi forces near the port of Umm Qasr.

President Bush was informed of the deaths and expressed his regrets.

The copter incident came as hundreds of troops crossed the Kuwaiti border into Iraq, launching attacks to capture key southern cities, oil fields and ports - and starting the long march to Baghdad.

Early today, divisions including the 7th Cavalry and the 3rd Infantry met no resistance as they roared across the desert under a bright sun.

"Let's get it on!" shouted excited front-line soldiers as 155-mm. shells flew overhead toward the border, signaling they would soon follow.

Enemy fire was limited to about 10 missiles shot into Kuwait at allied soldiers. Widespread fears of chemical attacks - which repeatedly sent jittery troops into their protective suits at the cry of "gas! gas! gas!" - did not materialize.

Baghdad endured a brief air raid - but the unprecedented storm of destruction that the Pentagon had promised would "shock and awe" the Iraqis was still to come.

"The days of the Saddam Hussein regime are numbered," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who warned that the worst was on its way.

The air blitz could start as early as today unless there is a surprise mass surrender. The Pentagon said yesterday that thousands of Iraqi troops could be planning to hand over their weapons without firing a shot.

The beginning of the ground war came after hours of U.S. artillery and surface-to-surface missile strikes softened up Iraqi border posts.

Black Hawk helicopter gunships swept low over the desert ahead of long lines of advancing troops, tanks and bulldozers, pushing aside sand berms and wrecked tanks dating to the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

The 1st Marine division entered Iraq about 9 p.m. Iraqi time. The 3rd Squadron of the 7th Cavalry clashed separately with Iraqis on the border.

With oil wells burning in the distance near Basra, they ran into rear-guard units that put up a fight. The Americans opened fire with machine guns on an Iraqi T-55 tank and destroyed it with a Javelin anti-tank missile.

Cpl. Graham Ahlstrom, 22, of New York City looked at the heavily pounded remains of the first Iraqi outpost his company found. "There's really nothing up here but a bunch of rubble," he said.

A massive convoy of trucks, tanks and Humvees from the 101st Airborne also rolled through the desert, going about 30 mph and kicking up moonlit clouds of dust. The troops, mostly silent, sat in the back of heavy trucks with protective scarves pulled across their faces.

The British Royal Marines made an amphibious landing on the Al Faw Peninsula - where some of the Iraqi missiles appeared to be coming from. They were fighting to capture the border town of Umm Qasr.

A BBC reporter with British forces said his unit had not planned to go into Iraq until the weekend, but the Iraqis had begun to threaten oil facilities.

Hitting home

In Baghdad, the night sky flickered with anti-aircraft fire, and Saddam's main presidential palace by the Tigris River was burning. So was the home of his son Uday, the Iraqi planning ministry and the compound of Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz.

Iraqi TV said U.S. forces had fired 72 cruise missiles, killing four Iraqi soldiers and wounding five.

In a statement read on Iraqi TV, the dictator told Bush, "May you be cursed and may your actions fail. What of your friends' words that Iraq's Army and people would greet your aggression ... with chanting and dancing?"

Two U.S. military choppers - an Apache and a Pave Low Special Operations helicopter - were downed without injuries to their crews. Iraq said it shot one down, but the Pentagon said both made crash landings and were not hit.

Worldwide rancor

Protests erupted around the world as hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to oppose the U.S. attack on Iraq. Traffic was stopped in Chicago, and Times Square was filled.

Trying to play down strong international opposition and a lack of United Nations support for the preemptive war, Bush, Rumsfeld and other administration officials stressed that 45 countries back U.S. policy toward Iraq.

Although Micronesia and the Marshall Islands made the supporters list, Russia, China, India and many European and Arab nations bitterly condemned the attack.

With CIA warnings that the war could trigger terrorist attacks, security nationwide remained at its highest level since Sept. 11, 2001.

The Pentagon said it was still assessing the success of the surprise surgical strike on a meeting of the top Iraqi leadership.

The Red Cross said one person was killed and 14 injured.

Officials were studying whether the man who appeared on TV later to denounce Bush was indeed Saddam or a double, though most Iraqis and other longtime observers said they believed he was the genuine article.

Some military experts were critical of the attempted decapitation strike. "There's always a civilian who thinks there is a silver bullet and the military goes along with it," said retired Army Lt. Col. Piers Wood, a senior fellow at Global Security, a military strategy think tank. "It looks like a false start to me."

Originally published on March 21, 2003

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