TERENCE SMITH: The weather was dramatically better across Iraq today, and coalition forces took advantage of the improved conditions in the air and on the ground. U.S. and British warplanes resumed bombing in earnest today, flying more than 600 missions against Republican Guard positions and key targets in and around Baghdad. Towering plumes of smoke could be seen billowing above the city's skyline. (Explosions and gunfire) The pounding continued into Friday morning Iraqi time.
It was the heaviest bombing in days. Iraq's health minister charged that the U.S. was deliberately targeting civilians in an effort to break the public will, something coalition forces have repeatedly denied. The sandstorms that had crippled air operations and slowed the military's ground advance towards Baghdad finally cleared, allowing U.S. and British forces to resume their march towards the Iraqi capital. But on the outskirts of Nasiriyah, U.S. troops continued to skirmish with Iraqi forces following a night of fierce battles -- (Explosions) all in an attempt to secure the southern town.
Military officials said Iraqi troops suffered numerous casualties and lost scores of vehicles. As the fighting raged on, thousands of refugees poured out of Nasiriyah. Further north, near Najaf, U.S. troops said they encountered some continued resistance from the Iraqis after fierce firefights over the past two days.
COL. WILL GRIMSLEY: They attempted to blow up the bridge which was moderately successful, but we've still been able to use it. In the 48 hours since, these guys have been in constant contact mostly dismounted soldiers a mix of paramilitary, some military, some with uniforms, some not. In pick-up trucks, in dump trucks, in some military vehicles attempting to run roadblocks, infiltrate in and around positions. It's been virtually constant contact for the past 48 hours.
TERENCE SMITH: In northern Iraq, cargo planes began delivering supplies to U.S. paratroopers who dropped into the Kurdish- controlled area. We get that part of the story from Julian Manyon of Independent Television News.
JULIAN MANYON: It was a dramatic opening of the long-awaited northern front. 1,000 U.S. airborne soldiers carried out a low-level parachute drop into northern Iraq, at a location that the Pentagon at first declined to specify. Daylight revealed they had in fact landed at an airfield controlled by Kurdish forces some 50 miles away from the Iraqi front line. The Kurds have been preparing the airfield here for weeks.
SOLDIER: Here we jumped into a friendly portion of Iraq, and we know that there are some terrorist factions here, so we have to be careful, we have to be alert, but we have to be mindful that we do have friends here.
JULIAN MANYON: The airborne soldiers will soon, in Washington's worlds, be robustly reinforced. Transport aircraft will bring in troops, equipment, even tanks. The result will be less formidable than the full mechanized division, which the Pentagon wanted to send in by land until the Turkish government vetoed it, but it will still be a potent strike force. The U.S. troops will work closely with Kurdish forces, and the Kurds are delighted.
HOSHYAR ZABARI: We and the peshmerga forces that are working very closely with U.S. Troops and the coalition forces in order to coordinate all our moves on a day-to-day basis.
JULIAN MANYON: American bombing of the Iraqi front lines is intensifying. Small numbers of Iraqi troops are said to be deserting.
TERENCE SMITH: There was more action in southern Iraq today. British troops continued aggressive attempts to secure the al Faw Peninsula, a task that's vital to efforts to bring in humanitarian aid. The British swept the area, thoroughly searching Iraqi vehicles and their occupants for weapons.
SOLDIER: Open it, please.
SOLDIER: Get down, get down, get down. Lay down, lay down. Hey, you, too!
TERENCE SMITH: The troops also conducted mine-clearing operations in the nearby waters after new mines were found in the channel. At the CENTCOM briefing today in Qatar, Vice Brigadier General Vincent Brooks provided details.
VICE BRIGADIER GEN. VINCENT BROOKS: The actual term that is used is really "bottom-influenced mines." These are sub-surface mines that are able to be programmed if need be to count the number of hulls that pass over top of them, and at a certain point, however programmed, they detonate. So before we proceed with humanitarian assistance through that area, we want to ensure that's all cleared, so clearing operations continue today. I want to show you the type of mine that we're describing here. This is a Sumer mine developed by the Iraqis from another country's design, and, as I mentioned, it is programmable. We believe that these have been developed since the imposition of sanctions; before 1991 Iraq did not have these.
TERENCE SMITH: British forces also continued their siege of the city of Basra. There was more fighting with Iraqi fighters there, and the beginning of an exodus from the city. Alex Thompson of Independent Television News reports on the situation there.
ALEX THOMPSON: Basra's civilians, as well as the soldiers, are now paying the price as British troops attack what they say are military targets only across the city, killing and injuring civilians as they do so. Basra Hospital, already short of medicines, clean water, and electricity before the invasion, now has a crisis, as forces loyal to Saddam Hussein hold out against the overwhelming British and U.S. forces. (Sirens wailing) It's not purely military targets which are attacked. Overnight, the city's TV and radio stations were also bombed. Hundreds of civilians have fled South towards the invasion forces. This was the situation six miles south of the city today. It's not known how many more may have gone North and East. This map shows the targets, such as the Ba'ath Party headquarters, dotted across Basra, the focus for air and artillery strikes in the past 36 hours.
To the west, the British seventh armored brigade now holds the international airport. Overnight, British army forces say air strikes destroyed the TV and radio stations in the city. This morning, British challenger tanks moved eastward, south of Basra, and the army says destroyed 14 Iraqi tanks. But here's the problem: From the northeast, Iraqi forces are still able to re-supply and reinforce down the Tigris Valley. The British challenger tanks and warrior armored vehicles of the 7th Armored Division are spearheading the attack on Basra, but it is proving a lengthy business, resistance stronger than anticipated, and every day more civilians are killed and maimed. As soon as it's deemed safe, those armored vehicles are bringing in aid to try and win over people here. This was al Zubayr, southwest of Basra, yesterday.
SPOKESMAN: Have you got... ( gunfire ) ...forward a face position?
SPOKESMAN: ( Yelling )
ALEX THOMPSON: Earlier, British tanks and U.S. Jets had obliterated what they said was the Ba'ath headquarters in al Zubayr.
MAJ. JOHNNY BOWRON: They have a mixture of weapons, generally RPG's and AK-47 rifles, but sometimes mortars, and they operate in small bands, generally trying to ambush convoys as they move around the town.
ALEX THOMPSON: Moving up the Basra road, the British army's mission to gain intelligence and to try to begin winning hearts and minds is underway. To the South: Safwan, still under Ba'ath Party control and not fully secure. Al Zubayr is just north of here, the scene of fighting for several days. (Heavy artillery fire)
SPOKESMAN: Okay. ( Indistinguishable )
ALEX THOMPSON: At the roadside and in vehicles, Iraqi ammunitions are discovered, seized, and blown up.
2ND LT.ANDY SHAND: In terms of weaponry, there was a find some 800 meters up this main road, 300 mortar rounds, some RPG rounds. It's quite a considerable find. Obviously represents a threat.
ALEX THOMPSON: The British say they've come to win hearts and minds, but the locals are terrified of being shot by them, many still carrying white flags as some kind of protection. Every vehicle flagged down, the occupants questioned by an interpreter, and then the vehicle searched.
TERENCE SMITH: There are now some 125,000 U.S. and British troops fighting in Iraq, an increase of 13,000 since Tuesday. And today at Ft. Hood, Texas, the first deployment from the 4th Infantry Division is boarded planes for the flight to Kuwait. More than 12,000 soldiers from the 4th are expected to join the northern front in Iraq in the coming weeks. They received their orders in January but were delayed by Turkey's refusal to allow them to enter Iraq across its southern border. In Washington today, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said the military has enough combat power on the ground and, he said, the continued build-up had been planned all along.
DONALD RUMSFELD: 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 three thousand people. And it's going to continue to that. We have plenty of forces en route.
TERENCE SMITH: The Iraqi military issued its own assessment of the war today. It said coalition forces had exaggerated their gains so far. The defense minister predicted U.S. and British units would encircle Baghdad within five to ten days, but he warned that they would face months of street fighting there. He said, "we feel that this war must be prolonged so the enemy pays a high price." According to the latest casualty figures, a total of 27 U.S. troops have died so far, more than half of those in combat. Eight are missing, and seven are prisoners of war. At least 22 British soldiers have died, with two missing and presumed dead. British Prime Minister Blair charged today that some captured British soldiers had been executed. The Iraqis denied it. Some of the wounded have been flown to the U.S. air base at Ramstein, Germany. Several spoke to reporters today, including this U.S. soldier who was shot in the arm last Saturday, during fighting at Nasiriyah.
STAFF SGT. JAMIE VILLAFANE: Wasn't really scared through the whole thing. At first it was more of a shock than anything. I was relieved to find they all reacted the way we would in training, the way that all of us are trained. We figured out that getting shot at really wasn't that bad. It was just the getting shot part that really sucked. (Laughter)
TERENCE SMITH: For its part, Iraq said today at least 350 Iraqi civilians have been killed so far in the war, and at least 4,000 wounded.