'Shock and awe' blasts Baghdad

Almost 40 hours after a measured, incremental start of the attack on Iraq, the US and its allies unleashed a massive aerial assault on Baghdad in what the Pentagon is calling "A-Day."

Enormous explosions rocked the city of 5 million as a barrage of mighty bombs crashed down on the Iraqi capital on Friday, sending up huge clouds of smoke and flame. Major detonations quickly followed. The Iraqis responded with blasts of anti-aircraft fire.

CNN reports that massive explosions also rocked the northern Iraqi cities of Kirkuk and Mosul.

Earlier on Friday, US and British troops did battle to capture the sources of Iraq's wealth in both the north and south.

US and British troops have taken control of the key southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr, according to a Pentagon briefing. Hundreds of Iraqis surrendered. And while a US flag was briefly raised over the port city, higher officers reportedly took it down, saying the military action was meant to be a liberation, not an occupation.

British commanders say their troops have taken control of the strategic Faw peninsula and its oil terminals in an overnight airborne and seaborne assault.

In southern Iraq, US Marines advanced into the Rumailah oil field, which accounts for half of Iraq's oil production. One Marine was killed by gunfire in that mission, the first reported combat fatality for US-led forces. Only hours earlier, eight British and four US servicemen died in a helicopter crash.

Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf denies that any Iraqi territory has been taken.

In northern Iraq, meanwhile, unconfirmed reports suggest that US special forces operating from Kurdish-controlled areas are seeking to win control of the oil fields around the city of Kirkuk.

US military planners had expressed fears before the war that Iraqi troops might seek to set fire to oil wells and other facilities as they did during their retreat from Kuwait in 1991.

British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon told Parliament Friday afternoon that he had reports of some 30 oil fires.

Some observers are skeptical of the focus that US military spokesmen are putting on the effort to protect the oil fields. "The Faw operation involved 500 British marines out of 150,000 troops in the area," said Tim Ripley, an analyst with the Center for Defense and International Security Studies at Lancaster University in England, who is currently at US Central Command headquarters in Qatar. "Saying that [the US and Britain] are preventing oil fires that are a possibility only because of the invasion has the ring of post-event justification about it," he argues.

Meanwhile, 70,000 troops of the US 7th Cavalry and 3rd infantry are advancing rapidly north across the desert toward Baghdad from their bases in Kuwait. Some units already are 100 miles into Iraq, a quarter of the way to the Iraqi capital. Reports from the front say the troops are proceeding mostly unopposed.

Life in Baghdad returned to a more normal pace Friday after US missile and bomb strikes Thursday evening. US military spokesman say those attacks targeted Iraqi government and command centers.

Iraqi Information Minister al-Sahaf, speaking to reporters in Baghdad Friday afternoon, said only civilians had been killed or wounded in the attacks and showed photographs of some of the casualties. He said the strikes had targeted houses belonging to members to Saddam Hussein's family, but that none had been hurt.

The Iraqis weren't giving up their oil Friday without a fight. US Marines ran into 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.

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.

US officials had said before the war began that oil fields would be a top priority for invading forces, recalling that Iraqi troops set fire to more than 700 wells in Kuwait as they retreated from that desert kingdom in 1991.

In his speech last Monday, President Bush warned Iraqi soldiers not to damage the oil facilities that will be crucial to any reconstruction effort after the conflict is over.

"In any conflict, your fate will depend on your action," he said in a message to Iraqi troops. "Do not destroy oil wells, a source of wealth that belongs to the Iraqi people."

Washington insists that the wells, producing some 2.5 million barrels a day until pumping stopped earlier this week, are not the prime motive for the US and British military action, countering widespread feelings in the Arab world that the US goal in the war is to win control of Iraqi oil.

But oil is Iraq's only cash export, and earnings from oil exports will clearly be crucial in paying for the reconstruction of the country once hostilities end.Iraq has 112 billion barrels of proven reserves, the second largest in the world after Saudi Arabia, and has been supplying 4 per cent of the world market under the United Nations-administered 'oil for food' program.

Material from wire services was used in this report.

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