Allies Suffer First Combat Deaths in Iraq
By: Associated Press
(Kuwait/Iraq Demilitarized Zone)-- One U.S. Marine died Friday in fighting as troops advanced on an oil field in southern Iraq, the military said. Separately, 12 coalition soldiers were killed as their helicopter crashed in the first hours of the ground war.
U.S. Marines encountered mortar fire as they took control of the main highway leading to the key port city of Basra, at the heart of Iraq's southern oil facilities. The Marine was killed during the advance on the Rumeila oil field, the military said.
British forces said they ran into "stiff resistance" as they moved against Umm Qasr to the south.
Thick smoke filled the skies from fires at some of the many oil wells and processing facilities in the region, where pipelines funnel Iraq's economic lifeblood through the al-Faw peninsula to the Persian Gulf.
Iraqi troops set fire to about 30 of the hundreds of oil wells in the region, British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said.
British troops took the southern portion of the peninsula in the first hours of the ground war, but at a cost: eight British and four U.S. Marines on a CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter that crashed.
The helicopter, which crashed Friday morning in Kuwait, was assigned to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. The crash site was 9 miles away from the Iraq border.
Officials were investigating the crash and said hostile fire had not been reported in the area at the time.
The Marines use the Sea Knight, a bus-like helicopter with two large rotors, to fly troops from ships at sea or base camps to forward positions.
The Navy and Marines grounded all 291 Sea Knight helicopters in August 2002 after a routine inspection of one helicopter in North Carolina found a crack in a rotor assembly. In 2001, a Marine Corps CH-46 crashed, killing three Marines and injuring two during training, also in North Carolina.
U.S. forces took the border town of Safwan, where residents waved at Marines but said little. A woman threw herself to the feet of soldiers until a man hurriedly came and led her away. Another man showed a bloody hand and said his wife was shot in the leg by the Americans.
Another man, who identified himself only as Abdullah, said he welcomed the arrival of the U.S. troops: "We're very happy. Saddam Hussein is no good. Saddam Hussein a butcher."
Iraq's forces appear to have pulled back to Basra. "Iraq officers have split and run right back to Basra," said Capt. Joe Tlenzler, a spokesman for the 1st Marine Division.
At one point, reporters with a U.S. troops in southern Iraq saw Marines sweeping Iraqi soldiers from around a burning pumping station as thick black smoke billowed hundreds of feet into the air. One Iraqi soldier was shot and killed by American forces as he tried to escape on a motorcycle.
Hoon called the peninsula's capture "certainly a significant strategic success. It means that we have a bridgehead from which to operate, but crucially it means that part of the plan of the Iraqi authorities to destroy their oil wealth has been averted."
He said troops encountered "stiff resistance" from Iraqi forces defending Umm Qasr, 20 miles south of Basra, but predicted it would soon fall to coalition forces.
Day broke in the area with U.S. and British forces responding to the Iraqis with artillery, muzzle blasts breaking like lightning, sending frightened dogs running across the roads of abandoned farm towns. Jets attacked one position to the west of Umm Qasr, lights sparking in the air as bombs dropped.
The 1st Marine Division needed air support 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," Lt. Col. Steve Holmes, a Marine in charge of clearing berms for troops and armor to enter Iraq.
Supported by Cobra attack helicopters and howitzers, Marine tanks and armored vehicles rolled down Route 80 through the demilitarized zone between Kuwait and Iraq.
Tanks were placed on berms to provide cover for Marines moving on the road.
Until then, the Marines had taken side roads. Route 80 allowed a faster approach to Basra itself, and hundreds of Marine vehicles moved up it into Iraq.
The Marines had encountered resistance in the area for several hours Friday morning after moving to attack nearby Safwan, which fell within hours.
The military continued to broadcast warnings to civilians in the area on loudspeakers to stay indoors and urging Iraqi troops to surrender.
On the Kuwait side, Marines in a sandbagged watchtower directed mortar fire at the Iraq side, where U.S. troops have watched the Iraqis, who appeared to be either digging defensive positions or setting land mines. "We'll find out soon enough," Holmes said.