Everybody leads with major developments in the ground war in Iraq: As bombs rained on Baghdad for a third day, Allied troops reached the halfway mark to Iraq’s capital city, an advance that was slowed yesterday by pockets of heavy fighting with Iraqi troops.
South of Baghdad, American and British ground forces stood on the brink of entering Basra, Iraq’s second largest city. Initially, U.S. officials believed Basra would fall with minimal effort, but soldiers were called in as reinforcements after troops ran into a contingent of Iraqi tanks outside the city, the Washington Post reports.
Major air strikes were launched against targets on the outskirts of Basra, and fighting was apparently kept outside the city to avoid major civilian casualties. (Basra’s population, the WP reports, is more than 1 million.) However, the Los Angeles Times notes that Al Jazeera reported more than 50 civilians were killed in the attack, and, in a major PR blow to Allied efforts, the network aired grisly footage of the dead and injured. (A wire report in the WP says the footage included a child with the back of his head blown off.)
Heavy fighting, meanwhile, was reported throughout the Euphrates valley. There, Allied forces captured key bridges and roads leading to Baghdad, where troops could arrive as early as Monday, everybody reports.
While plenty of Iraqi fighters have surrendered or agreed to lay down their arms, the New York Times reports that most of those waving the white flag are from Southern Iraq—an area that is generally anti-Saddam. Allied forces have yet to encounter many loyalists, such as members of the Special Republican Guard, the paper notes, meaning that the heaviest fighting may be yet to come.
People in high places would seem to agree. Everyone from President Bush—in his weekly radio address—to Gen. Tommy Franks—who briefed reporters yesterday for the first time since the war began, the NYT notes—had the same message yesterday: The war may be more difficult and last longer than initially thought.
Of course, it’s hard to believe administration officials didn’t contemplate this scenario. The WP’s Bob Woodward in a—where else?—front-page piece documents what feels like every step of the hand-wringing process that led to war. More than a dozen different war plans were drawn up when planning for the invasion began in January 2002—and by the time CIA Director George Tenet rushed to the White House last Wednesday with word that Saddam was in striking distance, special-operations forces had already been deep in Iraq for two days, looking for weapons sites and Iraqi leaders.
Speaking of weapons, Iraqi forces have been repositioning their surface-to-surface missiles and are expected to attempt further attacks against Allied troops as they advance toward Baghdad, “senior American officials” tell the NYT. So far Iraq has launched six missiles toward troops in Kuwait, four of which were blocked by Patriot anti-missile interceptors. Some of the Iraqi missiles have exceeded the 90-mile range limit by at least 20 miles, which would be a violation of Iraq’s weapons agreement with the United Nations.
The same NYT piece notes that Patriot missile technology has dramatically improved since the last Gulf War, when U.S. troops struggled to knock Iraqi Scuds out of the sky. A must-read LAT piece looks at the precision of smart bombs in general. Baghdad residents have been watching Allied bombing of the city from their roofs, unafraid of errant bombs. One witness tells the paper he saw what looked to be two comets streaking toward him during Friday’s intensive bombing raids. “They kind of stopped for a second, pointing nose up, and turned down quickly,” he says. “They fell right in the center of the palace.”
Accuracy might not be everything, however. The LAT fronts late-breaking word that a U.S. Patriot missile may have downed a British fighter jet over Kuwait early this morning.
Elsewhere, it was a day of increasing casualties. In Kuwait, one U.S. soldier was killed and at least 12 others wounded when as many as three grenades were thrown into a tent at the base camp of the 101st Airborne Division. An unidentified American soldier—who, the papers point out, recently converted to Islam—was detained in the incident. A military spokesman tells the LAT the motive was likely “resentment.” Meanwhile, two Royal Navy helicopters collided over the Persian Gulf yesterday morning, killing all seven on board, while the papers note an unconfirmed report on Britain’s Sky TV that four American soldiers were killed by rocket-propelled grenades
Meanwhile, an Australian journalist was killed and two others were injured in a suicide bombing attack in northeastern Iraq, reports the WP. In addition, a three-person crew for the British network ITV was reported missing
Everybody fronts photos, but stuffs word, of major antiwar protests around the world yesterday, including a march in New York that attracted more than 100,000 people.
In non-Iraq news, the WP fronts word that al-Qaida may be farther along in the development of chemical and biological weapons than initially thought. Documents seized during the arrest of No. 2 operative Khalid Sheik Mohammad show the group is on the threshold of producing or may have already manufactured botulinum and salmonella and the chemical poison cyanide. The group also attempted to manufacture anthrax. Investigators say Mohammed has told them “nothing yet” about the intended use of the weapons.
Finally, organizers of tonight’s Academy Awards say—for now—the show will go on. Do the Oscars really matter at a time like this? According to LAT film critic Kenneth Turan, the show is marred by “wretched excesses” and is “unruly, chaotic and overly long.” Yet with its “near-anarchy,” the Oscars speak to “society’s toleration for dissent and our embracing of all sorts of freedoms, even the ones that get in the way of predictability and order,” Turan writes. Is that a yes?