An Iraqi army officer killed four U.S. soldiers in a suicide bombing Saturday at a checkpoint in central Iraq, and Saddam Hussein's regime warned that more such attacks would be carried out as it wages an unconventional war for survival.
"This is the beginning," Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan told reporters in Baghdad, hours after the bomber had motioned U.S. soldiers to his car at a military checkpoint near the city of Najaf and then detonated explosives. "You will hear more and more in the next few days.
As an intense aerial campaign blasted Hussein's Republican Guard on the outskirts of Baghdad, Ramadan vowed, "We will use any means to kill our enemy in our land, and we will follow the enemy into its land."
U.S. military officials denounced the bombing as an act of desperation and said it will not affect the way they carry out the war. But they ordered security increased at checkpoints, and the attack appeared certain to raise the level of tension and caution among allied forces who encounter civilians -- and thus inhibit the military's ability to win public support.
The suicide bombing came as U.S. military planners intensified the air war and debated whether a larger ground force is needed in the drive toward Baghdad, according to defense officials. U.S. aircraft continued to pound the Republican Guard's Medina Division, deployed to defend the southern approaches to Baghdad, while the Iraqi capital was hit by some of the most ferocious airstrikes of the war.
U.S. defense officials acknowledged privately that they intended to slow the ground campaign for a few days, in part to let the air war wear down Iraqi defenses, and presumably to allow front-line troops to get fresh supplies.
"I'm going to pause and I'm going to work him [the Iraqi military] over until I've got him where I want to," said a senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "I want them pounded to dust until the only thing they can do is weakly wave their hand as we pass on to our objective.... We do not want a fair fight."
Early today, elements of the 1st Marine Division appeared to be pushing northward in central Iraq.
The number of U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf increased by 20,000 Friday to about 290,000, defense officials said. It could eventually reach 350,000 troops, they said. Nearly 100,000 U.S. troops are now in Iraq, according to the Pentagon.
The new deployments were ordered more than two weeks ago by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, but war planners are considering speeding the deployment of part of the 2nd Light Armored Cavalry Regiment from Ft. Polk, La., defense officials said.
U.S. and British forces continued to fight Iraqi troops on multiple fronts, and American commanders said they carried out several successful operations late Friday and Saturday.
In western Iraq, U.S. Army Rangers raided what defense officials said was an Iraqi commando headquarters in the dark early Saturday as part of a strategy aimed at ejecting all Iraqi forces from the region. A large number of prisoners were taken, Maj. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal said at the Pentagon.
In southern Iraq, Marines entering the city of Nasiriyah discovered possessions belonging to a group of GIs who went missing during an ambush in the area a week ago. They were then led to a shallow grave that contained human remains. The Marines were trying to determine whether they are the missing Americans.
Marine units later took control of a major military base on the fringe of the city that contained large amounts of weapons and chemical protection suits. Despite hours of fighting, Iraqi sniper fire continued in the area and by nightfall Saturday, the town was still declared to be unsafe.
Allied forces faced setbacks elsewhere Saturday. U.S. military officials at Central Command headquarters in Doha, Qatar, confirmed that warships in the Red Sea and Mediterranean had suspended firing cruise missiles over parts of Saudi Arabia to targets in Iraq after seven of the missiles apparently malfunctioned and fell into Saudi territory.
"We did have a number of missiles reported down in their territory," said Maj. Gen. Gene Renuart, director of operations at Central Command. He added that the U.S. military had agreed to review launch procedures before resuming the use of Saudi airspace. He provided no details about the problems with the missiles but insisted the temporary loss of Saudi airspace would not seriously affect the campaign against Hussein.
The Saudi announcement came on the same day American soldiers were pelted by eggs and stones by residents as they tried to recover an errant cruise missile in eastern Turkey.
As antiwar demonstrations continued in many cities -- more than 50,000 turned out in Berlin and an estimated 15,000 in Boston -- Pope John Paul II urged that the war not be allowed to become a "religious catastrophe" between Muslims and Christians.
Saturday's suicide attack on a road near Najaf was the first of its kind against U.S. forces since the invasion began. It represents a further escalation in a deadly Iraqi guerrilla campaign organized mainly by members of Hussein's paramilitary groups to slow the allied advance on Baghdad and sap morale.
An officer with the 3rd Infantry Division's 1st Brigade told reporters traveling with the unit that the bomber was the driver of a taxi who appeared to motion to soldiers for help as his car approached their checkpoint.
As the Americans neared the vehicle, it exploded, killing all four soldiers as well as the car's occupant. The attack came after several prominent Muslim clerics in the region urged Iraqis to resist the invaders.
Iraq has long recognized the value of suicide attacks. For the last three years, Hussein has been encouraging their spread by paying $10,000 rewards to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers who have carried out attacks on Israelis, in addition to the families of other Palestinians killed in the intifada.
In early February, a tape recording apparently made by Osama bin Laden gave Iraqis advice on how to resist allied forces, suggesting, among other tactics, "the importance of martyrdom attacks against the enemy."
In Baghdad, the suicide bomber was identified as an Iraqi army noncommissioned officer who was immediately hailed as a national hero. Hussein reportedly awarded him two posthumous medals.
Although Saturday's suicide bombing was the first carried out in this war against U.S. forces, it was apparently not the first car bomb targeted at Americans. Two days earlier, troops of the 1st Marine Division came across a suspicious car parked along a convoy route and, when they destroyed it, found it had been loaded with explosives.
At the Pentagon, defense officials insisted that the suicide bombing won't alter the tenor of the war.
"It won't change our overall rules of engagement. It doesn't affect the operation at large. But to protect our soldiers, it clearly requires great care," said McChrystal, vice director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
McChrystal and other U.S. military commanders say the campaign overall is going well.
Despite reports that some front-line U.S. troops were low on water and fuel and living on one boxed meal a day, McChrystal said the supply chain was mostly working well and has not been significantly interrupted by sporadic attacks by Iraqi guerrillas.
"The big answer is no, there is not a resupply problem," McChrystal said. " ... I think it's working very well."
Iraq has clearly seen the 300-mile supply line as an opportunity to disrupt the U.S.-British advance.
At a briefing in Baghdad, Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Said Sahaf likened it to a snake and vowed, "We are going to cut this snake in pieces."
To foil that strategy, the 82nd Airborne Division has been deployed to south-central Iraq to protect the supply line, according to reports Saturday.
The new focus of the war, with its emphasis on a lengthy air campaign to crush the Republican Guard, could postpone the battle for Baghdad and would bring the strategy of this conflict closer to that of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, analysts said.
But it would not necessarily extend a war that some planners privately estimated would take six weeks.
"How it is unfolding in those six weeks is what's surprising them, not the timeline," said William M. Arkin, an independent military analyst.
"They calibrated the campaign to what they thought was sufficient, and their read of the Iraqi regime was wrong."
In this war, however, a broader bombing campaign carries far greater risks to Iraqi civilians, because Iraqi tanks and other military equipment are now hidden among the homes and schools ringing Baghdad, analysts said.
More intense bombing means striking targets that were previously avoided, said Loren B. Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va., public policy organization.
The dilemma that Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command in the gulf, faces is that "the level of violence that would accomplish 'shock and awe' against the Iraqi military is also the level of violence that would do considerable damage to civilians," Thompson said.
"If the Iraqis don't fold over the next three days, the campaign will move toward the more decisive use of air power at the expense of many civilian targets we've been trying to avoid."
U.S. officials said they believe an airstrike late Friday on a building in Basra killed as many as 200 Iraqi paramilitary troops. The attack was one of eight carried out against headquarters buildings of the ruling Baath Party during the night.
The operation reflected a new focus for the allies -- one concentrating on the paramilitary forces that have created such trouble for U.S. and British forces over the past week.
Meanwhile, British troops began probing Basra's outer neighborhoods and searching for bands of armed irregulars who appear to control much of the city.
A British military spokesman in Qatar said a small unit of ground forces entered Basra before dawn Saturday and destroyed five Soviet-era tanks in addition to two statues of Hussein -- a step meant mainly as a show of force to boost the confidence of nervous residents.
"The message is clear," said one British military official. "We're here and we can do what we want."
Twelve years ago, after the 1991 war, the city's heavily Shiite Muslim population revolted against Hussein and his predominantly Sunni Muslim regime. Although the revolt had considerable U.S. encouragement, the United States did not offer any military support, and the uprising was brutally crushed by Hussein's forces. Today, Basra's Shiites remain skittish of any move against the Iraqi leader as long as he's still alive.
Officials at Central Command in Doha said Saturday that they are investigating an explosion at a Baghdad street market Friday that the Iraqis say killed more than 50 civilians.
Like an earlier marketplace blast in the capital, U.S. officials say, it could have been caused by an errant allied bomb or missile, or by Iraqi antiaircraft fire that fell back on the neighborhood.
Friday's carnage in particular seemed to inflame public opinion in the Arab world, where grisly scenes of the dead and wounded were shown repeatedly on television.
Arab media described it as a "massacre" inflicted by the United States, and the Iraqi government denounced President Bush as a war criminal.
The British government reported Saturday that Hussein had fired his commander of air defenses as allied forces claimed control over of 95% of Iraq's skies.
Briefing reporters, a spokesman for British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Hussein had fired his cousin, Musahim Saab Tikriti, and replaced him with Gen. Shahin Yasin Muhammad Tikriti, the Associated Press reported.
The British spokesman also said new, unspecified intelligence indicated that U.S. and British bombing may not have been to blame for the two marketplace explosions in Baghdad last week.
Daniszewski reported from Baghdad and Marshall from Doha. Times staff writers John Hendren in Washington; Richard Boudreaux in Ankara, Turkey; and Sam Howe Verhovek and David Zucchino in southern Iraq; and special correspondent Jailan Zayan in Doha contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX) * Allied Casualties (as of 5 p.m. Pacific time Saturday) U.S. Britain Killed this past week 23 9 Killed since war began 36 23 Captured/missing this past week 22 -- Captured/missing since war began 23 -- * Sources: Defense Department; British Ministry of Defense;Associated Press