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Paratroopers Arrive in N. Iraq; Baghdad Bombing Continues - 2003-03-27


U.S. soldiers have parachuted into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, to open what U.S. officials hope will be a northern front in the war to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Meanwhile, more explosions have rocked Baghdad, and, in the south, British forces say they have destroyed much of an Iraqi armored column that moved out of Basra.

Paratroopers from the U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade, based in Italy, dropped out of the sky near the Kurdish city of Erbil late Wednesday. Their task is to start clearing the way for what the Pentagon calls the northern option in the war. The U.S. military says several hundred U.S. special forces were already in the area before the paratroopers arrived.

Although the force in the north is still small, the plan is to fly tanks and armor into a Kurdish-controlled airbase near Erbil, and then move south toward Baghdad. That, say military planners, would force elite Republican Guard units to defend the capital's northern approaches as well as its southern ones.

In Baghdad, dozens of shuddering explosions overnight kept the city's people on edge after what Iraqi officials described as two U.S. missiles hit a residential neighborhood of the city on Wednesday, killing 15 people. General Stanley McChrystal, of the Pentagon's joint staff, denied that U.S. forces targeted the neighborhood.

"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 said. We do know that we did not target anything in the vicinity of the Shaab district."

The U.S. Central Command in Qatar says it is investigating the bombing.

Iraq's health minister, Umid Midhat Mubarak, says 36 Iraqis have been killed over the past 24 hours in air raids on Baghdad. He says 350 Iraqis, mostly children, women and elderly people, have been killed since the war began.

Meanwhile, on the ground, U.S. troops on the road to Baghdad continue to be engaged by both regular Iraqi army units and paramilitaries, who have turned to guerrilla tactics to ward off the invaders.

"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 Alisha Ryu, traveling with the U.S. military in the region. "The army says the men turned out to be not civilians, but hardcore 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."

Further south, around Iraq's second biggest city, Basra, British forces say they destroyed much of an Iraqi armored column that was trying to break out of the beleaguered city. Air Marshal Brian Burridge, commander of British forces in the Gulf, says Iraqi militia, probably controlled by the ruling Baath Party, went through neighborhoods of Basra rounding up soldiers, putting them in tanks, and telling them, "go that way."

"You can tell from the way they are dispossessed that this isn't a fighting formation that really knows its business," he said.

Air Marshal Burridge says the arrival of coalition vessels carrying hundreds of tons of humanitarian aid for the people of southern Iraq has been delayed for one day, after British mine hunters discovered and detonated two mines outside the shipping channel into the main port of Umm Qasr.