Iraq conflict has barely begun, says Rumsfeld
The US Secretary of Defense said this even as the US opened a second front in northern Iraq.
US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on Wednesday hailed progress that US-led forces have made in Iraq but cautioned that coalition forces "are still closer to the beginning than the end".
In comments to the Senate Appropriations Committee seeking funding for the war, Rumsfeld declared that "while the conflict is well begun, it has only begun".
SECOND FRONT OPENED
US marines closed in on Baghdad early on Thursday after two days of bloody firefights, while paratroopers landed in Kurdish territory to the north and coalition aircraft pounded elite Iraqi units around the capital.
As many as 1,000 crack US airborne troops opened a new front as they jumped into the mountainous Kurdish-held north of Iraq, where US special forces have already been coordinating air strikes with the help of allied Kurdish militias.
With the war entering its second week, the troops from the US Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade parachuted into an airfield to establish a base through which to bring in more troops and tanks, Pentagon officials said.
"It's the first sizeable force in northern Iraq," a US defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Coalition aircraft battered Iraqi positions in support of the parachute drop, as well as Republican Guard formations dug in on the southern rim of the capital in preparation for the main allied onslaught.
And several US transport planes landed in the eastern part of the Kurdish enclave Iraq early Thursday, witnesses said, with US troops seen being deployed near frontlines with the northern Iraqi oil city of Kirkuk.
MARINES BEAT BACK IRAQIS
Further south, elements of the Marines' First Division finally beat back Iraqi attacks which had blocked their access for two days and pushed north on a major road near the city of Diwaniya, some 240 kilometres from Baghdad.
The move came after troops had snaked around dirt roads from east to west in the southern Iraqi desert since Sunday as fierce fighting flared around the crucial town of Nasiriyah on the Euphrates river.
Another large marine unit to the east had also broken free of resistance between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and punched forward to within 250 kilometres of Baghdad.
Looking tired and filthy on a freezing but sunny morning, marines seemed glad to have left behind the cities of Nasiriya, Shatra and Al-Rafai where they encountered heavy attacks from dedicated Iraqi fighters.
"It's a good feeling to push north and closer to Saddam Hussein's backyard. I think he would prefer to hold the fight in southern Iraq but this will show him and take some of the arrogance away," Lieutenant Joshua Lyons said.
"It should make him stand up and take notice as opposed to claiming that the US does not control major parts of Iraq."
Hundreds of Iraqi troops were taken prisoner along the way while the corpses of hundreds more littered the roadside. Towns were deserted and surrounded by the hulks of burnt-out vehicles.
Soldiers also had to contend with swirling dust storms, hail, rain and mud which cut visibility and bogged trucks.
But the weather appeared to be clearing, opening up the possibility that the 101st Airborne Division's lethal attack helicopters could enter the fight.
The 101st has been grounded for more than two days at their forward base in the southwestern desert due to whipping sandstorms, robbing the advancing US ground units of vital air cover and quick-reaction capabilities.
But dozens of US marines were wounded in a friendly fire clash near Nasiriyah, officers told an AFP correspondent travelling with the troops on Thursday.
BATTLE FOR BASRA
Further south, British tanks and troops with the 7th Armoured Brigade were still trying to secure the strategic port city of Basra, a crucial gateway for humanitarian assistance.
"We've come against some stiff opposition from a mixture of regime paramilitaries and the remnants of the Iraqi army's 51st Division," Air Marshall Bryan Burridge, commander of British forces in the Gulf, told reporters in Qatar.
He said a major Iraqi armoured column, reportedly including more than 100 Russian-built T-55 tanks, which broke out of Basra late Wednesday had been engaged with allied warplanes and artillery.