WASHINGTON – Heavy B-52 bombers left England Friday, portending major nighttime air strikes against Iraq two U.S. officials said, as American forces seized important ground in south and western 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.
In the early hours of the war, the U.S. launched two rounds of cruise missile attacks against Baghdad, but sent only two Stealth bombers over the capital city. The B-52s have played a major role in bombing campaigns dating back to Vietnam.
The military plans for major air escalation going into the weekend, a second senior military official said.
The airfields seized Friday in far western Iraq, known as H-2 and H-3, were taken without much resistance from Iraqi troops, defense officials said on condition of anonymity. But they called control of the installations “tentative.”
They are important partly because Saddam Hussein is believed to have Scud missiles there.
Likewise, in the south, troops have “passed through” the Rumeila oil field but it may be too soon to say they have secured it, one senior Pentagon official said.
The war’s first casualties were reported. A U.S. Marine with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force was killed in a gunfight as his unit advanced on the oil field. Hours earlier, eight British and four American soldiers died in a U.S. Marine helicopter crash that a British military spokesman said was an accident.
An important part of the plan laid out by the war’s commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, was to drop special forces at sites around Iraq to seize sensitive facilities such as oil wells, airfields and suspected chemical and biological weapons sites.
The airborne assaults were planned to come nearly simultaneously with, and in some cases in advance of, the bombing campaign and ground assault.
The H-3 airfield, 240 miles from Baghdad, has been one of Iraq’s primary air-defense installations. Allied pilots bombed it in September.
Retired Navy Rear Adm. Stephen H. Baker said at the time that destroying radar at H-3 “would allow allied aircraft mounting major raids on Iraq a clear route into the country.”
American and British troops encountered both hostile fire and white flags in their sprint across the desert Friday, with some 200 Iraqi soldiers surrendering to the U.S. 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit just over an hour after it crossed the border from northern Kuwait.
Iraqi defenders offered stiff resistance in some pockets, firing intense artillery barrages that were answered in kind.
But in Safwan, just across the Kuwait border, Iraqis watched and in some cases helped as U.S. Marines rigged chains to giant portraits of the Iraqi president and tore them down. Townspeople mostly hid from the occupying force. Some patted their stomach to beg for food.
Maj. David “Bull” Gurfein, pumping his fist in the air, led a milling crowd of citizens in chants of “Iraqis, Iraqis, Iraqis!” A young man in a headscarf told Gurfein: “No Saddam Hussein. Bush!”
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said direct talks were taking place with Iraqi forces and it was possible the “full force and fury of a war” could be averted.
“There are communications in every conceivable mode and method, public and private,” he said after meeting lawmakers Thursday night.