U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq have opened a northern front of attack, parachuting into northern Iraq and seizing a key airfield in the Kurdish zone, said to be about 50 kilometers south of the Turkish border. The northern invasion came on another night of bombing in Baghdad. But there's still no indication when coalition ground troops poised on the outskirts of the city plan to move on the Iraqi capital.
About a thousand soldiers from the U.S. army's 173rd Airborne Brigade are now on the ground in northern Iraq, apparently landing without encountering any hostile fire. Coalition air strikes have already been targeting Iraqi command and control sites in the region. But the arrival of American paratroopers could signal the allies are preparing to begin closing in on Baghdad from the north, as well as the south, where troops, tanks and artillery are massing about 80 kilometers outside the Iraqi capital.
In southern Iraq, reports from Basra had American and British aircraft attacking what was described as a long convoy of Iraqi tanks and vehicles pouring out of the city, ahead of orders to send in troops and humanitarian aid. There have been reports of Iraqi troops in Basra attacking Shiite civilians who British military spokeswoman Emma Thomas say were involved in what appeared to be an uprising against Iraqi rule. "We don't know exactly what's going on there. All we can say is we would look forward to watching it develop and would encourage it if at all possible," she says. "But obviously we are still on the outskirts of Basra."
And, journalists with American troops near the town of Nassirya report U.S. forces coming under more attack and sniper fire Wednesday. This, after what is being described as one of the fiercest land battles of the war so far, between American forces and Iraqi fighters near the town of Najaf.
"U.S. Army units came under machine gun attack from a group of Iraqi men who were approaching the unit in light pick-up trucks and wearing civilian clothing," says VOA's Aslisha Ryu who is traveling with the American military in the region. "The army says the men turned out not to be civilians but hard core paramilitary fighters loyal to Saddam Hussein's Baath party. At the same time, coalition officers and reporters in the field say the Iraqi forces are hiding among civilians."
It's been these kinds of attacks that are leading to questions at the Pentagon about the decision to have the American army race rapidly toward Baghdad, while leaving rear guard forces and supply lines vulnerable to sneak attacks after ground troops pass towns and cities in southern and central Iraq. Even so, military commanders insist the campaign to topple Saddam Hussein is going as planned.
"It has not thrown the force off its plan," says General Stanley McChrystal of the Pentagon's Joint Staff. "The logistics have continued to flow smoothly. Additional forces continue to push forward. The plan has moved almost exactly with expectations."
But Iraq says at least 15 civilians were killed Wednesday when a missile struck a Baghdad neighborhood. The Pentagon is not ruling out the possibility that an errant American missile may be to blame, but is denying U.S. forces deliberately targeted the area. "We know for a fact that something landed in the Shaab district but we don't know for a fact whether it was U.S. or Iraqi," he says. "We do know that we did not target anything in the vicinity of the Shaab district."
President Bush delivered a message of resolve to U.S. military personnel at Florida's MacDill Air Force Base Wednesday, home to the Pentagon's Central Command. He warned victory may not come easily but he decided to drop a line from his speech which said the war was progressing ahead of schedule.
On Thursday, he meets with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose country has some 40,000 troops taking part in the war against Iraq, to plot strategy and plan for country's post war future.