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U.S., Britain Push Into Iraq Following Artillery Barrage

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Susan B. Glasser
THE WASHINGTON POST -- kuwait city

U.S. and British ground forces punched into Iraq across a broad front Thursday night after a thunderous artillery barrage, seizing territory along the Kuwaiti border with only modest resistance and pushing on toward the key southern city of Basra. While the sweeping land invasion began under a hazy desert moon, a second torrent of U.S. cruise missiles destroyed several buildings in Baghdad.

The long-awaited ground war started a day earlier than planned because of President Bush’s decision to launch the “decapitation” attack on the Iraqi leadership early Thursday morning, U.S. officers said. Although the invasion was clearly underway after months of buildup, U.S. defense officials characterized the first movements as battlefield preparation, laying groundwork for a much more massive push toward President Saddam Hussein’s headquarters in the Iraqi capital.

In strikes designed to weaken Iraq’s leadership, 24 Tomahawk missiles were launched Thursday night against Baghdad-area strongholds of the Special Republican Guard, Iraq’s most elite military unit; the grounds of Saddam’s main Presidential Palace; and offices used by Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz. They added to a 36-missile volley early Thursday morning aimed at Saddam and his top lieutenants.

Iraq retaliated by firing back at the U.S. invasion force assembled in Kuwait, sending missiles southward intermittently throughout the day and into the night. U.S. Patriot antimissile batteries intercepted at least two. Soldiers and Kuwaiti civilians alike repaired repeatedly to shelters, but no casualties were reported.

The ground assault began with a massive burst of 155-mm artillery, mortar and multiple rocket fire that rumbled for hours across northern Kuwait, shaking houses miles away and prompting eager U.S. soldiers to cheer as the shells flew overhead.

Soldiers from the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division poured across the border around 8 p.m. local time (noon EST) at the westernmost edge of the advance. To the east, the Marine 1st Expeditionary Force moved about the same time to seize control of and protect Iraq’s southern oil fields, where several wells were reported to be ablaze. At the eastern edge of the invasion arc, on the swampy Faw peninsula, U.S. Navy and British commandos seized oil shipping and pumping facilities along the Persian Gulf.

Senior Marine officers reported ineffective resistance and no American casualties. But while the regular Iraqi army units defending southern Iraq have been described as weak and prone to giving up, they did not appear to be laying down their arms en masse at the initial contact. Front-line units reported engaging a unity of Iraqi infantry and tanks; officers said the clashes killed six Iraqi soldiers.

“Right now they’re fighting, not surrendering,” a senior Marine officer said.

U.S. forces did not detect the use of chemical or biological weapons by Iraqi units, officers said, but they nevertheless forged into Iraq wearing their full protective suits and toting gas masks. Similarly, the handful of Iraqi missiles fired into Kuwait carried conventional warheads, officials in Kuwait reported.