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Coalition Forces Making 'Rapid' Progress in Push to Baghdad, Says US Commander - 2003-03-24


Coalition warplanes are continuing to pound military targets in Baghdad and in northern Iraq, near key oil facilities. U.S. Commander General Tommy Franks says coalition forces are making "rapid, and in some cases dramatic" progress in their push toward Baghdad.

Defense officials say explosions continue to rock Baghdad as coalition warplanes target Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's palace compound.

A British military spokesman said warplanes attacked strategic installations such as ammunition dumps, barracks, and communications facilities.

Coalition aircraft also blasted targets near the northern Iraqi oil center of Kirkuk, following the arrival of more U.S. Special Forces soldiers in the area.

In some battles coalition soldiers are now fighting troops from Iraq's elite Republican Guard.

U.S. Commander General Tommy Franks said that during an attack on a Republican Guard complex near Baghdad, one American Apache helicopter was lost and two crewmembers are missing in action. He said the helicopter was one of 30 or 40 involved in the mission. He disputed an Iraqi report that it was shot down by Iraqi farmers.

Iraqi television showed one helicopter still armed with guided missiles sitting in a grassy field near the city of Kerbala, south of Baghdad. Iraq says the crew has been taken prisoner.

Coalition tanks and troops have now covered about two-thirds of the distance from Kuwait to Baghdad.

General Franks said Special Operations soldiers are operating in northern and western Iraq hunting for ballistic missile systems and weapons of mass destruction. "Our Special Operations forces from the United Kingdom, the U.S., Australia are conducting direct action and strategic reconnaissance operations across the country. Major land combat formations continue to move as you have seen them move over the last three or four days. Progress toward our objectives has been rapid and in some cases dramatic," he said.

General Franks says about 3,000 Iraqi soldiers have surrendered, and that coalition soldiers are in contact with Iraqi unit leaders in an effort to convince them to give up the fight.

The commander says he is not surprised that coalition forces have suffered some casualties on the way to Baghdad and are fighting some Iraqi troops that are still loyal to Saddam Hussein.

"Our forces have met sporadic resistance in a number of places on the battlefield. But as our troops fight, even in isolated areas, there will be casualties. There have been casualties because from the perspective of the fighting man on the ground, even an isolated set of combat situations represents violence, which he must see face to face," General Franks said.

He also said anti-mining operations are ongoing in the Persian Gulf to clear the way for humanitarian supplies, which he says should begin arriving within several days.