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Explosions Continue Shaking Baghdad - 2003-03-22

Explosions continue to shake Baghdad, following a ferocious pounding of the city by U.S. and British air power. The U.S.-led coalition says its forces continue to advance in southern Iraq. But the collision of two British helicopters over the Gulf has led to more allied casualties.

At least three big explosions shook the Iraqi capital at dawn Saturday, breaking a lull that followed massive air strikes Friday night. They were the first daylight blasts to hit the city.

Air raid sirens wailed intermittently throughout the night in Baghdad, as hundreds of bombs and missiles rained down on the city. It was the start of what allied military planners have called a shock and awe campaign aimed at ousting Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Explosions were also heard in the key northern Iraqi cities of Kirkuk and Mosul.

The Pentagon said the heavy air attacks were aimed at military and government targets. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he believes the bombing campaign will hasten the collapse of the Iraqi leadership. "The confusion of Iraqi officials is growing. Their ability to see what is happening on the battlefield, to communicate with their forces, and to control their country is slipping away," he said. "They're beginning to realize, I suspect, that the regime is history."

Iraq's information minister, Mohammed Said al-Sahhaf, told reporters in Baghdad Saturday that U.S. assertions that it is only targeting military facilities are lies. He says allied missiles fell on populous areas of Baghdad and that more than 200 civilians were wounded.

Meanwhile, the allied ground offensive in southern Iraq continues. Coalition forces say they have taken the key port of Umm Qasr and are advancing on Iraq's second biggest city, Basra. They also say they have secured control of key oil production facilities in the region.

U.S. spokesmen say the commander of the Iraqi army's 51st division surrendered south of Basra, along with an estimated 8,000 troops.

But Iraqi Information Minister Sahhaf denied that Umm Qasr has fallen. He said Iraqi forces are resisting the allied onslaught, and that coalition forces have been stopped in the south.

Coalition forces also say they have taken two strategic airfields in western Iraq. Their capture, say U.S. officials, will preclude Saddam Hussein from launching Scud missiles against allied troops and Israel. The bases could also be used as refueling facilities for coalition aircraft.

The coalition suffered more casualties Saturday, when two British naval helicopters collided over the Gulf. Captain Al Lockwood, a British military spokesman, said seven people, all those on board the helicopters, died in the accident. "Tragically, seven of the crew members were lost, and our thoughts are very much with them, their families, their friends and their colleagues in the Royal Navy," he said.

Captain Lockwood says the second helicopter crash in two days was not the result of hostile action. On Friday, a U.S. helicopter carrying four U.S. marines and eight British commandos crashed in northern Kuwait killing all aboard.

Turning to northern Iraq, Turkey has sent more than 1,000 troops into the area, in a move that concerns the United States and risks a confrontation with local Kurdish authorities.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell had urged Ankara not to make the move. "At the moment, we don't see any need for a Turkish incursion into northern Iraq, and we are talking with the Turkish authorities," he said.

But Turkey's ambassador in Washington, Farouk Logoglu, said the move was necessary to prevent Kurdish groups from taking advantage of instability in Iraq, and declaring an independent state. "Turkey has a series of legitimate concerns that necessitates a Turkish presence in northern Iraq," he said. "First is to secure Turkish borders."

Turkey has long feared that an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq would encourage its own restive Kurds to re-ignite an insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives in recent years.