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US-Led Forces Open Massive Air Campaign Over Iraq - 2003-03-22

U.S. led coalition forces have opened a devastating air campaign in the skies over Iraq, with waves of bombings taking out key buildings in the capital, Baghdad and striking other parts of the country as well. Two American marines have become the first combat casualties, killed as U.S. and British forces continue to advance toward the Iraqi capital. As the war to topple the government of Saddam Hussein enters its third day, there are indications the Iraqi leadership is now in disarray.

Baghdad Friday night, the city reverberating with the thunderous explosions of incoming bombs. Huge fireballs and clouds of smoke rise into the night sky as an all out air war opens over the Iraqi capital.

"Coalition forces have launched a massive air campaign throughout Iraq. Several hundred military targets will be hit over the coming hours," said General Richard Myers, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, announcing the start of what is being called a massive shock and awe air campaign. It began around 9 p.m. Baghdad time, shortly after huge B-52 bombers took off from airbases in Britain headed toward the skies of Iraq, loaded with hundreds of precision guided bombs.

Live television from Baghdad Friday night showed key buildings in the Iraqi capital exploding and burning. But the lights in Baghdad remained on, a possible indication that the bombing was deliberately avoiding civilian infrastructure and attempting to limit collateral damage. Explosions were also reported in northern Iraq, in the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul.

At the same time, thousands of U.S. and British ground troops are pushing closer to Baghdad while securing oil fields in southern Iraq.

"Our ground forces have pushed close to 100 miles inside Iraq," said General Myers.

With only sporadic Iraqi resistance reported on the ground, General Myers had a message directly for the Iraqi military. "I urge you in the strongest possible terms: Do the honorable thing, stop fighting, that you may live to enjoy a free Iraq," he said.

More Iraqi soldiers are surrendering. And, VOA's Deborah Block, who entered Iraq with coalition forces, reports troops received a warm welcome when they crossed the border. "There were people there who were shouting 'welcome America' and waving and giving us the thumbs up," she said. "Others were simply just gawking at us."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says he does not know whether Saddam Hussein remains in control but that high level talks between U.S. and Iraqi military commanders have not persuaded Iraq's leadership to give up power.

"Is there contact between coalition forces and Iraqi forces? The answer is most certainly," he said. "There has been over the past period of weeks and those discussions have intensified. But they tend to be particularized to a specific unit."

A senior U.S. official says American intelligence is picking up signs of confusion and disarray within President Saddam Hussein's regime, telling VOA there is no certainty about whether the Iraqi leader is even alive.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "There are all kinds of rumors about what has happened to Saddam Hussein and his sons but there are no concrete facts to report."

This, after coalition bombs struck a compound Thursday where the Iraqi leader was believed to be meeting with other top leaders.

And, in a sign that Baghdad may not be happy with the way the war is going, CNN, which has been one of the few Western television networks with reporters in Iraq, has been ordered out of the country. During the Gulf War 12 years ago, CNN was permitted to broadcast from Baghdad for the duration of the war.