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US, British Forces Moving Deeper Into Iraq - 2003-03-21

As U.S. and British forces move deeper into southern Iraq, U.S. military officials have confirmed the first combat casualty of the war.

U.S. officials have confirmed that a U.S. Marine is the first combat casualty of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was killed in fighting in southern Iraq. Earlier, 12 soldiers - eight British and four Americans - died in an apparent accidental crash of a Marine helicopter in northern Kuwait.

British forces secured the al-Faw peninsula on the Persian Gulf, a key transit point for Iraqi oil in the south.

A British Army spokesman in Qatar, Lt. Colonel Ronnie McCourt, says that will prevent the Iraqis from allowing oil to pour into the Gulf. "The oil infrastructure has not been damaged, and, thus any attempt by Saddam to release oil to create an environmental disaster has been avoided," he said.

British defense officials say about 30 oil wells in the area have been set on fire.

Meanwhile, U.S. and British ground forces continue to push deeper into southern Iraq, one group headed toward Basra, the other up the Euphrates Valley toward Baghdad.

Iraqi resistance in many cases has been described as light so far and hundreds of Iraqi soldiers have reportedly surrendered.

Retired U.S. Army General Wayne Downing told NBC's Today program that U.S. forces could encounter stiffer resistance as they get closer to Baghdad. "I think the thing that will be critical is when we close on the Republican Guard units and the Special Republican Guard elements," said Wayne Downing. "If these units show any kind of a tendency to surrender that is going to be a real bellweather [indication] for what the morale is like inside the inner circle of Saddam's group."

In Washington, President Bush briefed congressional leaders on the military operation in Iraq only hours both the House and Senate passed resolutions of support for U.S. forces fighting in Iraq. "We will stay on task until we have achieved our objective, which is to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and free the Iraqi people so they can live in a society that is hopeful and democratic and at peace in this neighborhood," said President Bush.

Two new opinion polls indicate public support for the war to oust Saddam Hussein is above 70 percent.

In Baghdad, Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Said al-Sahhaf displayed photographs of what he said were civilian victims of the initial U.S. air and missile strikes on Iraq.

He also said that despite U.S. efforts, Saddam Hussein and his family are safe. "They targeted the residence of the family of President Saddam Hussein," he said. "They targeted the houses of his family. But they are safe. They are safe. This is a complete disgrace. They are a superpower of villians."

At a European Union summit In Brussels, British Prime Minister Tony Blair urged the international community to put aside its differences over military action in Iraq and come to the aid of the Iraqi people. "There is a real understanding that the Iraqi humanitarian disaster is here and now and that the international community will have to come together to repair Iraq from the ravages of Saddam's rule, which has reduced his people to such poverty and fear," said Tony Blair.

Mr. Blair says the war is going well so far and he sees cracks emerging in Saddam Hussein's government. .