Published March 21, 2003
BAGHDAD – Eight American B-52 bombers took off from Fairford Airbase in Britain Friday morning -- a sign that major nighttime air strikes could be launched soon against Iraq.
One U.S. official involved in military planning said the B-52s had been scrambled en masse and the air strikes would be bigger than anything seen thus far in the conflict.
On Wednesday, six other B-52s left Fairford to be pre-positioned closer to Iraq.
The 14 heavy, high-altitude bombers -- used for bombing campaigns during Vietnam -- are expected to be a big part of the coalition's "shock and awe" campaign. Each B-52 can carry 12 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs), eight Conventional Air Launched Cruise Missiles (CALCMs) inside and another 12 externally, or a variety of other non-precision bombs.
Marines on Friday secured the Iraqi border town of Umm Qasr, the only major seaport for goods to enter Iraq, and raised the American flag to signal their victory. Umm Qasr would give coalition forces access to a port for military and humanitarian supplies and hasten the end of Iraqi resistance in the south. A "couple of hundred prisoners" were taken, a U.S. military official said.
Some reports say military officials hope to take Basra Friday night. U.S. Marines seized a portion of the main road leading from Kuwait to Basra, which could help speed the takeover of southern Iraq's largest city.
Forces could enter Baghdad within the next three or four days, a spokesman for British forces in the Persian Gulf said Friday.
U.S. Navy vessels in the Persian Gulf have seized at least one Iraqi missile ship and two tug boats that had at least 50 land mines aboard, Fox News has confirmed.
American forces also seized two key western Iraqi airbases where Saddam Hussein is believed to have Scud missiles. The Iraqi Air Force is not a threat, but the bases were near the so-called "Scud Box," where it was feared Iraq could launch Scud attacks on Israel.
Special operation forces secured the bases, which will now become operational for coalition forces.
Meanwhile, a U.S. Marine was killed in combat on Friday, marking the first combat casualty of the war.
The first coalition casualties occurred Friday when a Marine CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter crashed and burned in Kuwait while returning from a mission, killing eight British and four American Marines.
President Bush, updating congressional leaders on the war, said Friday the United States is "making progress" in its mission to disarm Saddam Hussein's regime and liberate Iraq.
"We will stay on task until we've achieved our objective, which is rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and free the Iraqi people so they can live in a society that is hopeful, democratic and at peace with its neighbors," Bush said in the Oval Office.
The U.S. military appeared to be speeding up its timetable in the race to Baghdad.
Associated Press reporters with military units said they were moving faster than the schedule given to them by U.S. military commanders during confidential briefings before ground operations began.
Hundreds of Iraqi soldiers were surrendering Friday -- further enhancing the theory that Iraq's central command structure was in shambles.
British military sources told Fox News that 20 percent of Saddam's elite Republican Guard had surrendered or were surrendering.
Defense officials told Fox News Friday that they aren't hearing much communication from senior Iraqi leadership -- yet another sign that Saddam's regime may be breaking from within and that there's very little commanding control.
Iraqi forces appeared cut off from their leadership after the initial missile attack on a Baghdad compound.
On Friday, the Iraqi troops weren't giving up their oil without a fight. U.S. Marines ran into mortar fire as they took control of the main highway leading to Basra, at the heart of Iraq's southern oil facilities.
U.S. forces took the border town of Safwan. A woman threw herself at the Marines' feet until a man hurriedly came and led her away.
Another man said he welcomed the arrival of the U.S. troops: "We're very happy. Saddam Hussein is no good. Saddam Hussein a butcher."
Marines hauled down giant street portraits of Saddam, telling nervous residents of this southern Iraqi town that "Saddam is done."
Milling crowds of men and boys watched as the Marines attached ropes on the front of their Jeeps to one portrait and then backed up, peeling the Iraqi leader's black-and-white metal image off a frame. Some locals briefly joined Maj. David "Bull" Gurfein in a new cheer: "Iraqis! Iraqis! Iraqis!"
Iraq also fired another Scud missile on Friday, but Patriot missiles successfully intercepted the rocket over the desert.
The 1st Marine Division needed air support Friday to suppress Iraqi mortar and small-arms fire while seizing Route 80, which leads from Kuwait to Basra.
"Every now and then they pop off to let us know they're still there," said Marine Lt. Col. Steve Holmes.
U.S. missiles and bombs struck specific targets -- including the main presidential palace in Baghdad and strongholds of the Iraqi army's elite Special Republican Guard.
U.S. military commanders held back-channel negotiations with Iraqi commanders and refrained from all-out bombardment.
Iraqi information minister Mohammed Sa'eed al-Sahhaf said Friday that Saddam was not hurt during the attack but that one of his homes was hit.
The official Iraqi News Agency said 37 people were injured in the latest strikes on Baghdad, and Iraqi military said four soldiers were killed. No figures were given on Iraqi losses in ground combat.
Britain is preparing to take humanitarian aid into Iraq within 48 hours.
Fox News' Major Garrett, Chris Wright, Bret Baier, Greg Kelly and The Associated Press contributed to this report.