A ferocious two-day sandstorm broke Thursday, allowing U.S. warplanes to swing back into heavy action over central Iraq and giving a boost to ground troops who had bogged down on the road to Baghdad. The capital was shaken by some of the strongest explosions of the war, but its leaders remained defiant.
Iraqi officials said they expect Baghdad to be encircled in five to 10 days but predicted the campaign to unseat President Saddam Hussein will founder there.
Lead elements of the U.S. 1st Marine Division and the Army's 3rd Infantry Division are pointed at Baghdad's southern flank, where the Medina Division of the Iraqi Republican Guard is arrayed, as the two sides steel for what is likely to be the major battle of this conflict.
With the invasion of Iraq entering its second week and Hussein apparently still in power, President Bush said that the war will continue for "however long it takes."
"This isn't a matter of timetable -- it's a matter of victory," the president said. "And the Iraqi people have got to know that. They have got to know that they will be liberated and Saddam Hussein will be removed, no matter how long it takes."
There was some movement forward Thursday. A northern front began to take shape as U.S. paratroopers moved into position in Kurdish-controlled territory and the first Iraqi lines collapsed.
And U.S.-led forces in central Iraq pounded Iraqi positions in and around the city of Najaf. They also fought near the southern city of Nasiriyah for a fifth day and along key supply routes that form the spine of the allied advance on Baghdad.
But throughout the combat theater, military commanders scrambled to readjust their battlefield plan. U.S. and British forces continued to encounter unexpectedly stiff resistance in parts of southern Iraq.
While the weather had been blamed for delays in the charge toward Baghdad, some of those on the front lines acknowledged that the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division may have advanced too rapidly and needed to hold up.
Military planners said they had anticipated none of the resistance in cities such as Nasiriyah and Najaf. They had intended to bypass population centers, concentrate on severing the central government, and then await surrenders from smaller commands.
"I honestly think they had us move so fast because they thought it'd be a fast collapse," said Capt. Steven Barry, commander of "Cyclone" Company in the Army's 4th Battalion, 64th Armored Regiment. "Now that they realize it's not going to be a fast collapse, they've decided to slow down and be more deliberate."
Half a hemisphere away in Landstuhl, Germany, where the wounded from the fierce fighting around Nasiriyah are being treated, U.S. soldiers described their shock at the resistance that greeted them.
"We were very surprised," Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua Menard said. "We were told as we were going through Nasiriyah that there would be little to no resistance."
He and other members of his battalion said they had been led to expect scenes of mass Iraqi surrenders like those during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Instead, "when we got in, it was a whole different ballgame," recalled Menard, 21. "They weren't rolling over like we thought they would."
The military announced no new combat deaths, but the family of Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Vann Johnson Jr., a corpsman, said in Arkansas that he had been killed by a grenade Tuesday while tending to wounded soldiers in Iraq.
The Washington Post reported in today's editions that nine U.S. Marines killed in Nasiriyah on Sunday may have been the victims of "friendly fire," not enemy artillery. Eleven Marines were killed in the battle. The Post cited an unidentified source as saying preliminary indications suggest that nine of them may have been hit by fire from an A-10 Warthog flying air support.
Supply-line problems added to the rigors facing forward units of U.S. troops, now within 50 miles of Baghdad. Attacks on U.S.-British convoys and two days of sandstorms and foggy weather had slowed the delivery of badly needed supplies of food, water, ammunition and spare vehicle parts.
In at least one Marine unit, "meals ready to eat" were being rationed at just one a day because of short supplies. Some damaged helicopters were kept grounded by a lack of spare parts.
U.S. commanders predicted that improved weather today would speed the convoys and allow for the more efficient stockpiling of supplies where the forward troops could use them.
One such forward base opened Thursday after being captured by U.S. forces Saturday. A C-130 supply plane landed at an airfield in Tallil, just outside Nasiriyah, bringing the first of many planned shipments of materiel and troops, the Associated Press reported. Wags posted a sign reading: "Bush International Airport."
Improved weather is also expected to allow light infantry forces to move north. Some units were slowed or halted Thursday by foggy weather, although others reveled in sunshine after two days of sandstorms that had turned the sky a soupy orange.
Powdery dust continued to blow across the Persian Gulf, grounding some planes on aircraft carriers and forcing others to land at friendly Gulf airports rather than carry out their sorties. Still, more than 190 sorties were launched from the carriers Abraham Lincoln, Constellation and Kitty Hawk.
"These are the worst conditions I've ever seen in the Middle East," a Chinook helicopter pilot said after a harrowing flight that was called back because pilots couldn't see other U.S. helicopters and feared collisions.
U.S. officers stressed that their forces had moved at impressive speed until bad weather and stiff Iraqi resistance slowed the advance north.
"We went 200 miles in two days," one officer said. He noted that Gen. George S. Patton's 3rd Army moved 100 miles in two days to relieve U.S. forces at Bastogne in 1944.
Coalition planes flew 500 bombing runs Thursday, striking 200 targets, Air Force officials reported. For the second day in a row, the top-priority targets were the Medina Division, south of Baghdad, and the Hammurabi Division in the north.
Powerful explosions shook Baghdad on Thursday and early today, and a billowing plume of smoke rose high above one of Hussein's presidential compounds. U.S. military officials said a bat-winged B-2 stealth bomber struck what they described as a major link in Iraq's national communications network in a tower on the east bank of the Tigris River.
Iraq's defense minister, Sultan Hashim Ahmad Jabburi Tai, predicted that the war will come down to a decisive street battle in Baghdad. Iraq will win, he insisted, although the war might last for months.
"They have to come into the city eventually," he said. "The enemy can bypass the resistance and go in the desert as far as it wants. In the end, where can he go? He has to enter the city."
In northern Iraq, where 1,000 paratroops from the U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade landed overnight, the lines were shifting.
Battered for days by U.S. cruise missiles, Iraqi army troops retreated from hilltop positions without firing a shot as Kurdish fighters, some in taxis and on motorcycles, advanced and civilians looted Iraqi bunkers of grenades, canteens and gas masks.
Iraqi units pulled back 11 miles from Chamchamal toward Kirkuk, Iraq's richest oil city and a potential strategic battlefield for U.S. forces. A military commander for the U.S.-allied Kurds said his lightly armed forces now controlled an 18-mile-wide front line.
The buildup of U.S. forces in the north was further in evidence Thursday as soldiers scouted potential sites to serve as their base -- including at least five schools. Several troops later moved into two of them.
South of Baghdad, Najaf was shaping up as a focal point of the next phase of fighting.
3rd Infantry Division units made substantial advances in Najaf, pounding resistance positions with artillery and calling in airstrikes. The U.S. forces have been striking Baath Party headquarters and other Iraqi positions, destroying about 12 vehicles and killing 40 party officials and about 200 fighters, said field commanders of the 4th Battalion, 64th Armored Regiment.
The Pentagon continued to send troops to the region, where an additional 100,000 to 120,000 American military personnel are expected to join the 250,000 U.S. and 40,000 other troops, mostly Britons. The deployments would substantially increase the force in Iraq, but U.S. commanders would have to wait weeks to use them in a battle for Baghdad.
Among the expected troops are nearly 20,000 from the Army's 4th Infantry Division, whose arrival was postponed because Turkey denied the mechanized unit the right to travel through that country. They are being sent from Ft. Hood, Texas, and Ft. Carson, Colo., to Kuwait over the coming week.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld dismissed suggestions the allied forces in Iraq need more firepower to complete their mission.
In testimony on Capitol Hill, he said the battle plan "was designed in a way that forces would continue to flow over a sustained period. So the only big change in the plan was the fact that the 4th Infantry Division did not come in by land through Turkey. But the plan is as it is, and every day the number of coalition forces in Iraq is increasing by one, or two, or 3,000 people. And it's going to continue to do that, and we have plenty of forces en route."
Rumsfeld insisted that "good progress has been made" in the campaign, noting that allied forces had control of the air over Iraq and ground troops were within 50 miles of Baghdad. But he warned that the fight ahead won't be easy.
"The so-called Republican Guard forces are ringing Baghdad some 40, 50 miles away from it," Rumsfeld told members of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "And very likely that will be some of the toughest fighting that will occur. And that's yet ahead of us."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in Washington for meetings with Bush, accused Iraq of executing two British prisoners of war. He offered few details but was apparently referring to two soldiers whose bodies were shown on Iraqi TV.
A spokesman for Blair was later quoted by the BBC as saying there was no proof the two were executed but that "every piece of information points towards the men having been executed in a brutal fashion." He said the bodies were found away from their vehicles, without protective equipment or helmets.
Iraqi officials denied the accusation and said the men were killed in battle.
In Baghdad, Iraqi TV also showed more footage of Hussein; it could not be determined when the black-and-white pictures were taped.
Jabburi Tai, the defense minister, said a total of 350 Iraqi civilians had been killed. The independent Doctors Without Borders confirmed at least 250 wounded in Baghdad alone, including many women, children and elderly.
A spokesman for the U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar, suggested Thursday that a missile strike on a Baghdad market Wednesday that killed more than a dozen people may have been a case of the Iraqis bombing themselves. Brig. Gen. Vince Brooks said the Iraqis are using old, defective stocks and are firing without activating radar systems that would improve aim but enhance the risk of detection.
"Missiles are going up and coming down," Brooks told reporters at a daily briefing. "So we think it's entirely possible that this may have been, in fact, an Iraqi missile that either went up and came down, or given the behaviors of the regime lately, it may have been a deliberate attack inside of town."
The U.S. Central Command has refused to provide details of its investigation into the incident. Iraq blamed the United States for the attack, which appeared to ratchet up the level of anger against the United States in Iraq and throughout the Arab world.
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Toll on the Battlefield
Military totals (as of 10 p.m. Pacific time Thursday)
U.S Britain Iraq Killed 27 22 Unknown
Missing 16 0 Unknown
Captured 7 0 4,500
* Iraq has reported at least 350 noncombatants killed. One Australian and one British journalist have been killed.
U.S. and British deaths
*--* Killed When Where Circumstances 8 Britons 4 Americans March 21 Kuwait Helicopter crash
2 Americans March 21 Southern Iraq Killed in action
6 Britons 1 American Saturday Persian Gulf Helicopter collision
2 Americans Saturday Kuwait Grenade attack at base camp
1 American Saturday Kuwait Vehicle accident
1 American Saturday Unknown Gun accident
11 Americans Sunday Nasiriyah Killed in combat
2 Britons Sunday Kuwait Jet downed in "friendly fire" incident
1 American Monday Najaf Killed in action
2 Britons Monday Near Basra Killed during riot
2 Americans Monday Saddam Canal Drowned
2 Britons Monday Basra Tank hit by friendly fire
1 American Tuesday Unknown Grenade attack
2 Britons Unknown Unknown Unknown
1 American Unknown Unknown Vehicle accident
Mohan reported with the 3rd Infantry Division and Fleishman and Watson from northern Iraq. Times staff writers Tony Perry with the 1st Marine Division; Tracy Wilkinson and Tyler Marshall in Doha; Carol J. Williams aboard the Abraham Lincoln; and John Hendren, Maura Reynolds and Esther Schrader in Washington contributed to this report.