BAGHDAD, Iraq - The United States launched an intense and long-threatened aerial assault against Iraq on Friday, raining hundreds of bombs and cruise missiles on the capital and other places deemed crucial to President Saddam Hussein’s regime.
The airstrikes, which the military had dubbed the ‘‘shock and awe’’ campaign, were launched as tens of thousands of heavily armed U.S. and British ground troops raced across the Iraqi desert in a linear dust cloud pointed at Baghdad.
Although resistance was reportedly minimal, the United States suffered its first combat casualties of the war when two Marines were killed in separate firefights in southern Iraq, not far from the Kuwaiti border. Four U.S. and eight British Marines were killed Thursday when their helicopter crashed in Kuwait, but they were not engaged in combat at the time.
Also, two British Navy helicopters collided today over international waters in the Persian Gulf, and seven crew members were missing, officials said.
Group Capt. Al Lockwood, a spokesman for British forces in the Gulf, said the collision involved Sea King search and rescue helicopters.
In Baghdad, continuous explosions shook the capital for more than two hours, beginning shortly after nightfall and lighting the sky with billowing plumes of fire, smoke and debris. Among the sites hit were Saddam’s presidential palace compound, the headquarters of the Special Security Service and the barracks of the Republican Guard. The number of casualties wasn’t immediately known.
Senior U.S. officials said an even heavier bombardment was planned for today.
There was no immediate indication that the bombardment had dislodged the Iraqi leadership, but there were hints of cracks.
One top Iraqi commander surrendered to U.S. Marines in southern Iraq, according to American military officials, and hundreds of lowerranking soldiers — there was no precise count — surrendered to the invading forces as they made their way through the country. In the village of Safwan, on the Iraq side of the Kuwait border, civilians greeted U.S. Marines with cheers and joined them in gleefully tearing down posters of Saddam.
Perhaps more significantly, an official at the U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar, said an estimated 20 percent of the Republican Guard — the troops considered most loyal to Saddam — either have defected or plan to defect in the coming days. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the estimate was based on conversations U.S. and British forces have been holding with selected Guard commanders, some of whom are being offered a role in rebuilding the country.
Another senior U.S. military official, who likewise insisted that he not be named, said the aerial bombardment over the next 24 hours would focus on obliterating those top-tier forces, as well as disabling the Iraqi leadership’s ability to communicate with its forces and the nation at large.
U.S. intelligence officials said they still do not know whether Saddam or his sons were injured or killed in the pre-dawn strike outside Baghdad on Thursday that was the opening salvo of the war.
‘‘We continue to believe they were in the compound,’’ one U.S. official said. ‘‘There’s conflicting reports about whether they were killed or injured.’’
The official said other countries claim to have fielded reports that Saddam was killed. He declined to name the other countries. But he said the United States has been unable to corroborate the information.
Iraqi TV continued to broadcast Friday, and telephones in Baghdad were working, but Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggested that military communications might already be disintegrating.
Iraq’s rulers ‘‘are starting to lose control of their country,’’ he added. Iraqi troops are ‘‘beginning to realize, I suspect, that the regime is history.’’
Rumsfeld insisted that the United States was taking unprecedented measures to minimize civilian deaths by pinpointing only government targets.
Iraqi officials said that during the first day of bombing early Thursday, one woman was killed and 14 civilians injured. It listed its military casualties as four killed and six wounded, and said that 72 bombs and missiles had landed. The United States said U.S. and British aircraft had flown more than 1,000 bombing sorties and launched 1,000 cruise missiles Friday alone.
‘‘We’re into this now,’’ Rear Adm. John Kelly told reporters aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, his flagship in the Persian Gulf. ‘‘We’re gonna win it and win it fast.’’
While there were setbacks, the coalition’s ground campaign appeared to be advancing on or ahead of schedule.
By Friday night, U.S. forces had advanced about 100 miles into Iraq from Kuwait, according to Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. American troops, he said, had seized territory in southern, western and northern Iraq. The U.S. troop presence in the north remained small and was limited to special-operations forces, he said.
Troops seized two airfield complexes in far western Iraq without much resistance, defense officials said. The airfields are important in part because they are believed to be repositories for Scud missiles. However, U.S. officials said they had only ‘‘tentative’’ control of the installations.
Myers said the 1 st Marine Expeditionary Force, along with British forces, captured the port city of Umm al Qasr and the al Faw peninsula. He said the troops also secured the main oil manifolds along the al Faw waterway, Iraq’s lifeline to the Persian Gulf. Marine units seized numerous oil fields in southern Iraq to prevent Iraqi forces from setting fire to them, officials said. Iraqi soldiers are believed to have set several wells on fire Thursday.
In London, Adm. Sir Michael Boyce, chief of the British defense staff, said two British battle groups had flanked U.S. troops and reached the outskirts of Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city. As the center of Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority, Basra is expected to welcome the overthrow of the Sunni-dominated government.
The air campaign Friday was the most intense and sophisticated in U.S. military history, one American defense official said.
More than 2,000 total sorties were flown by warplanes, including F-117s, B-2, B-52 and B-1 bombers, A-10s and Navy strike aircraft, the official said. Bombs were dropped by about half of the planes, with the remainder carrying out intelligence, surveillance, interdiction, refueling and special operations. The bombs hit more than 1,500 targets, the official said, in some cases hitting a single building with as many as 10 bombs.
The strikes were on Iraqi air defense systems, command and control centers, security operations, leadership compounds and sites where Iraq is believed to be developing weapons of mass destruction, the official said. Rumsfeld said earlier in the day that military planners have been working for months to assign the appropriate precision-guided munition for each target.
The official said U.S. planes were not challenged by any Iraqi aircraft but did encounter ‘‘heavy defenses’’ from Iraqi surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery fire. No aircraft were lost.
President Bush expressed pleasure at the course of events on Friday. ‘‘We’re making progress,’’ he said as he met with congressional leaders in the Oval Office.
Besides Baghdad, targets of the aerial campaign included two spots in the north of Iraq, the oil city of Kirkuk and territory held by Ansar al-Islam, a militant Muslim group with ties to al-Qaida.
Kirkuk, which produces one-third of Iraq’s oil supply, is crucial to stability in the region and U.S. ground forces were expected to move quickly to secure the city’s 300 wells.
All times Arizona time. Iraq is 10 hours ahead of Arizona
Initial strike begins at 7:40 p.m. with precision strikes in Baghdad, where U.S. thought Saddam Hussein was meeting.
President Bush tells nation war has begun and that it will be a "broad and concerted campaign."
Saddam goes on television, telling Iraqis to draw their swords and fight the U.S., which has committed a "shameful crime."
Destroyers, cruisers and submarines launch 40 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Baghdad from e Red Sea and Persian Gulf.
F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter drops four 2,000-pound satelliteguided JDAM bombs on Baghdad.
A U.S. Marine helicopter crashes in Kuwait because of a sandstorm, killing 12 — four Americans and ght British.
Iraq ignites oil wells in southern Iraq, and U.S. troops hurry to put them out.
Demonstrators protest war worldwide.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reverses course, lets U.S. use Turkey airspace.
"Shock and awe" campaign finally begins with major airstrikes in Baghdad and the northern cities of Kirkuk, Mosul and Tikrit.
Ground troops push 100 miles into Iraq from the south, onethird of the way to Baghdad.
U.S. troops seize Faw Peninsula and two airfields in western Iraq.
Iraqi soldiers guarding the southern border surrender.
U.S. troops seize control of uthern oil wells.
President Bush leaves White House for the weekend in Camp David.