Explosions in Baghdad

Mar 20, 2003 01:57 PM EST

WASHINGTON -- Several large explosions rocked the Iraqi capital at about 9 p.m. Thursday (1 p.m. EST). At the same time, Pentagon sources said elements of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force was moving into Iraq from the southeastern border with Kuwait.

Reporters on the scene reported that black smoke could be seen rising from at least three locations around Baghdad. Air raid sirens sounded briefly, about 20 minutes before the blasts, followed a few minutes later by flashes of anti-aircraft fire that lit the night sky.

This followed the U.S. and coalition forces' launch of a series of strikes with Thursday's "decapitation attack" aimed at Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his leadership to pave the way for a full-fledged attack and ground invasion, U.S. officials said.

U.S. Marines have clashed with Iraqi troops and a allied bombardment has begun along the border between Iraq and Kuwait, correspondents from other news agencies reported Thursday.

Correspondents Art Harris and Lisa Rose Weaver reported intense attacks by U.S. artillery and aircraft on positions in southern Iraq. New York Times reporter John Kifner, traveling with the U.S. 1st Marine Division, said Marines had engaged Iraqi troops south of the Iraqi border in Kuwait in what is believed to be the first ground combat of the war.

Kifner said the Marines encountered two Iraqi armored personnel carriers and destroyed them.

Seven aircraft performing missions from the USS Abraham Lincoln dropped bombs Thursday over Iraq aimed at targets U.S. officials deem to be a threat, military officials said, adding that attacks would continue throughout the day.

Pentagon officials confirm that U.S. Special Forces are performing reconnaissance missions in southern Iraq, CNN's Barbara Starr reported Thursday. "They call it preparing the battlefield," Starr said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld urged Iraqi leaders to surrender, warning that the U.S. assault would be "of a force and scope and scale that is beyond what has been seen before."

Dubbed Operation Iraqi Freedom, the campaign opened shortly before dawn in Baghdad, with U.S. warships in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf firing about 40 satellite-guided Tomahawk cruise missiles, military officials said. F-117 stealth fighters, which each carry two 2,000-pound "bunker buster" bombs, also were involved in the strikes.

U.S. government officials said a private home outside Baghdad had been targeted after intelligence indicated a fix on the location of senior Republican Guard, intelligence and Baath Party leaders -- including Saddam.

Iraqi television broadcast a taped message from Saddam that denounced the U.S.-led military campaign as "criminal" and said his countrymen would be victorious. U.S. intelligence specialists are examining the tape closely to determine whether the speaker was Saddam or a double.

The Red Cross reported that one person was killed and 14 people were injured in the strikes.

Other developments
• Iraq responded to Thursday's attack by firing at least four missiles into northern Kuwait, two of which U.S. Patriot missiles intercepted, U.S. military officials said. U.S. forces sounded numerous alerts in the hours after the strikes, sending troops at several bases scrambling for chemical protection gear and running for bunkers. Air raid sirens also have sounded in Kuwait City.

• The Turkish parliament voted Thursday to let U.S. warplanes use Turkey's airspace to launch strikes against Iraq and to allow the Turkish military to enter northern Iraq.

• U.S. military officials confirm oil wells are burning in southern Iraq near the Kuwaiti border. Rumsfeld said the Pentagon had reports that Iraqi forces had set "as many as three or four" wells ablaze in the southern part of the country.

• U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Thursday urged combatants to protect Iraqi civilians, calling on them to "do everything in their power to shield the civilian population from the grim consequences of war."

• A Special Forces helicopter crashed in the southern Iraqi "no-fly" zone Wednesday before the attack began, a Pentagon official said. No one on board was injured, and all were evacuated. A coalition airstrike later destroyed the damage.

• Activity on the usually busy floor of the New York Stock Exchange came to a halt Thursday morning as traders observed two minutes of silence in support of troops deployed to Iraq.

• The United States and Great Britain have massed nearly 300,000 troops in the Persian Gulf region.

By Albert H. Lee
[email protected]