A thousand U.S. soldiers parachuted into northern Iraq early today, forming the vanguard of a new front in the war, hours after two missiles slammed into a residential neighborhood in Baghdad, killing 15 civilians by Iraqi count.
Facing no hostile fire, the paratroopers from the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade jumped from low-flying planes during the early-morning darkness and descended in groups of 100 into a broad valley lined with snow-covered mountains near this town, about 60 miles northeast of the city of Irbil.
They secured an airstrip where other aircraft will bring in military equipment and thousands more troops, Pentagon officials said. The airborne soldiers joined about 200 troops already on the ground, including Green Berets and other special operations troops working with ethnic Kurds -- who control the region -- to identify Iraqi targets.
Despite a second day of blinding sandstorms, scattered fighting flared throughout Iraq on Wednesday. Allied warplanes pounded two of the six Republican Guard units surrounding Baghdad. In the confusion, U.S. commanders reported that 1,000 Republican Guard vehicles had begun to move south toward American forces but later said the guard was simply repositioning itself around the capital.
To the south, U.S.-led forces destroyed several Iraqi armored vehicles that broke out of Basra, the country's second-largest city. Also in the south, the first shipment of humanitarian aid arrived from Kuwait. Even as Iraqis reached for the boxes of food, they accused the U.S. and Britain of trying to humiliate them with the help and chanted, "We give our blood and hearts to Saddam."
The Pentagon increased its count of Americans killed in the fighting to 24 and said 19 had been wounded. Two other Marines have been reported dead in the campaign but were not included in the Pentagon tally.
Defense officials also revised their estimate of Iraqi forces killed Tuesday night in a fierce firefight near the central city of Najaf upward from 200 to at least 350.
Uncounted other Iraqis have been killed, the officials said, and about 4,500 more have been taken prisoner -- about 1% of President Saddam Hussein's forces.
President Bush flew to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., home of the U.S. Central Command, and told thousands of troops and their families crammed into a large hangar, "There will be a day of reckoning for the Iraqi regime, and that day is drawing near."
Before Bush spoke, Ari Fleischer, the president's press secretary, had told reporters that Bush would say allied forces were ahead of schedule in their effort to drive Hussein from power. Instead, the president told the troops: "This war is far from over ....We have an effective plan of battle and the flexibility to meet every challenge.
"Nothing, nothing will divert us from our clear mission. We will press on through every hardship. We will overcome every danger. And we will prevail."
A senior White House official who declined to be identified said later that Bush had not mentioned being ahead of schedule because "he was erring on the side of being conservative."
The civilian deaths in Baghdad occurred in the Al Shaab district in the northern part of the city. Missiles blew a crater in a street and left a tangle of wreckage that included burning cars and damaged homes and businesses.
A water main burst, slowing ambulances that took the injured to hospitals.
At the Pentagon, Army Maj. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the United States had not targeted the Baghdad neighborhood and offered two possible explanations: that U.S. missiles had missed their intended targets or that Iraqi surface-to-air missiles had gone astray.
Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said Iraq had placed missile launchers within 300 feet of homes in the district. She called it "a sign of the brutality of this regime and how little they care about civilians."
But the civilian casualties inflamed anti-American emotions in the Arab world, where the battle for Iraq is increasingly seen not as a fight to dislodge a vicious dictator but the brave struggle of a people against invaders from the world's most powerful nation.
In some Arab countries, television called the missile attack a U.S. "massacre" and showed footage of bodies and body parts being carried from the scene.
The attack also seemed a setback in the U.S. and British campaign to win the loyalties of ordinary Iraqis and concentrate hostilities on Hussein, his command and control facilities and members of his regime.
In northern Iraq, troops from the airborne brigade, based in Vicenza, Italy, parachuted onto the airfield in friendly territory, controlled by Kurdish guerrillas since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The paratroopers cleared the way for Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles belonging to elements of the Army's 1st Infantry Division.
Their arrival was an encouraging sign for the Kurds, who hope to join a ground offensive against 50,000 or more Iraqi troops.
Kurdish villager Jasim Ahmad, 55, and a neighbor, Karim Hussein, 47, watched happily as the paratroopers, weighed down with heavy backpacks, set up a perimeter along a stone fence at a farm where roosters crowed and goats grazed on spring grass.
Two large U.S. helicopters were parked next to the Harir airstrip, about a quarter of a mile away.
The paratroopers landed two days after a senior defense official in Washington said there were too few coalition forces in the north to prevent Iraqi soldiers from setting oil fields ablaze.
The paratroopers' arrival launches a new kind of U.S. presence on the northern front, where Special Forces have been working with Kurdish officials to identify potential targets, develop intelligence and avert a conflict between the Kurds and Turkish forces across the border.
The original war plan called for mechanized units from the Army's 4th Infantry Division, based at Ft. Hood, Texas, to enter northern Iraq from Turkey and roll down toward Baghdad. But the plan was scrapped when Turkey refused to let U.S. forces use its territory for a ground invasion.
As the northern front began to take shape, U.S.-led airstrikes turned their focus from the Iraqi leadership and its command and control centers, mainly in Baghdad, to two of Hussein's six Republican Guard divisions surrounding Baghdad.
One was the Hammurabi Division north of the city; the other was the Medina Division to the south, standing between the capital and two U.S. divisions, the Army's 3rd Infantry and the 1st Marine Division, both approaching Baghdad from the Karbala Gap in mountains near the Euphrates River.
Defense officials said they expected the two sides to engage on the outskirts of the capital.
Air Force and Navy bombers increasingly switched from striking fixed targets to more close air support for American ground forces. U.S. and British planes pounded 100 targets with 600 bombing sorties Wednesday, the Pentagon said. Surveillance and other flights brought the total to 1,500.
The Medina Division has been repositioning itself and become a moving "target of opportunity," defense officials say. Early reports from Central Command's forward headquarters in Doha, Qatar, said 1,000 Iraqi vehicles had begun to move south in the direction of the U.S. forces near the Karbala Gap.
But the Pentagon denied the reports, and Central Command said later that Iraqi troops were simply repositioning themselves near Baghdad.
Defense officials at the Pentagon, who requested anonymity, said two armored brigades of the Medina Division and one mechanized brigade had dispersed their tanks and other heavy equipment under trees and near mosques and schools.
Hussein has arrayed all of his Republican Guard divisions around Baghdad, defense officials said, in a strategy to force the allies to bring the fight to the capital, where U.S. forces would be likeliest to face the two things he believes American commanders fear most: urban warfare and civilian casualties.
In southern Iraq, British Air Marshal Brian Burridge said, U.S.-led forces destroyed 20 Iraqi armored vehicles that had tried to break out of Basra on Tuesday. The forces came under attack by another column Wednesday, and he said some of those vehicles were destroyed.
The confrontation came after fierce fighting in the city as loyalist Iraqi forces threatened army troops who were trying to desert. During the hostilities, he said, British forces assaulted 11 Iraqi mortar positions and some T-55 tanks.
British commandos and U.S. Marines secured most of the Al Faw peninsula farther south, including the port of Umm al Qasr, and were conducting mop-up operations against remaining Iraqi fighters, Burridge said.
Following reports Tuesday of a possible uprising in Basra against Hussein's Baath Party rule, British units were deployed around the outskirts to keep reinforcements from entering and prevent paramilitary fighters from escaping.
The presence of these fighters, including the Fedayeen Saddam, who wear civilian clothes, has prevented any delivery of humanitarian aid to Basra, where food and water were scarce.
While there was speculation that British forces might try to enter the city to take on the paramilitary fighters, officials at Central Command in Qatar denied that such a move was imminent.
"We don't want to stick our hands into a hornet's nest," said British Army Col. Ronnie McCourt.
Farther south, a convoy of supply trucks rumbled across the Kuwaiti border to deliver the first shipment of humanitarian aid. It reached the town of Safwan, where a near-riot erupted as villagers fought over the food boxes filled with chicken, bread, cheese and juice. The villagers accused the United States and Britain of trying to humiliate them with the aid. Particularly galling to them was that the boxes came from Kuwait, which is seen as the only Arab neighbor willing to play host to the allied troops.
In the Persian Gulf, wind and blowing dust clogged jet engines and targeting scopes on aircraft aboard the carrier Abraham Lincoln and reportedly delayed bombing missions from the carrier Kitty Hawk.
Pilots told of blinding whiteouts over Iraq.
But Rear Adm. John M. Kelly, in charge at the Tactical Command Center on the Abraham Lincoln, was undeterred. Planes from his three-ship battle group flew more than 160 sorties despite the hazards.
"Our ability to deal with obscured view brought on by blowing dust and sand is better, significantly better in some areas, than [what] the Iraqis can do," Kelly said, "and we intend to exploit that."
Watson reported from Harir and Daniszewski from Baghdad. Times staff writers John Hendren in Washington; Tyler Marshall in Doha; John Hendren in Washington; Edwin Chen in Tampa; Carol J. Williams aboard the Abraham Lincoln; Richard Boudreaux in Diyarbakir, Turkey; Mark Magnier in Safwan; and David Wharton in Kuwait City contributed to this report.