EVENING HERALD (PLYMOUTH, UK) March 20 – 8.15pm
US and British troops invading from Kuwait seized the key Iraqi border town of Umm Qasr, the official Kuwaiti News Agency said.
Umm is the first Iraqi town on the road to Basra, Iraq’s second city
Earlier Royal Marine Commandos are reported to have stormed into southern Iraq as part of a sustained Coalition assault.
Pentagon sources also said the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force had crossed through the demilitarised zone into Iraq.
Before the marine advance, US forces on the Kuwaiti border opened fire with heavy artillery on Iraqi troops in southern Iraq, marking the first stage of the ground war.
The US 3rd Infantry Division’s artillery has opened fire on Iraqi troops with Paladin self-propelled howitzers and multiple launch rocket systems in the first stage of the ground war.
Maj Gen Bufourd Blount, the division commander, had said the artillery barrage would signal the first phase of the ground war against Iraq.
White light glowed in the sky above the cannons as dozens of artillery shells were fired. Explosions inside Iraq could be heard. Infantrymen who were between the howitzers and the Iraqi border cheered as the shells screamed overhead.
Maj Blount had said earlier that the artillery shelling would take place all along the entire Kuwait-Iraq border.
There were no reports from other parts of the sector but witnesses along the northeastern corner of the frontier reported hearing heavy detonations.
Umm Qasr in detail
Umm Qasr is the site of Iraq’s second naval base and one of the country’s main commercial seaports.
It lies near the Shatt al Arab waterway that leads to the city of Basra.
Earlier this month the United Nations Iraq-Kuwait Observer Mission, UNIKOM, said thousands of Iraqi troops had moved closer to the border with northern Kuwait.
The observers were reported to have said that an army division based in Basra, 28 miles north of the border, had established a new combat command post near Umm Qasr.
Officers from UNIKOM said a few thousand Iraqi troops had moved closer to the border and started digging trenches.
Iraq also deployed around half a dozen 105mm artillery guns and several anti-aircraft machine guns, surrounded by 15ft-high sand berms, on the northeastern end of the border, near Umm Qasr, said UNIKOM officers.
In the 1980s Iraq spent billions of pounds upgrading Umm Qasr, building factories and petrochemical plants and dredging channels to enable large tankers to dock.
“They are terrified,” one observer is reported to have said of the defenders. “They won’t surrender at the first shot. They will surrender when they hear the first American tank turn on its engine.”
Some of the Iraqi soldiers were reported to have been armed with Second World War machine guns, prompting speculation that they may have been part of conscript militias deployed to the southern front to bear the first impact of any allied attack.
The UNIKOM officers said Iraqi troops seemed mostly demoralised, wearing tattered uniforms, sometimes with sandals instead of boots. Some complained they were paid only half a month’s salary in the past three months, officers said.