| A boy offers cigarettes to US Marines in southern Iraq on Friday. (Reuters)
Umm Qasr (Iraq), March 21 (Reuters): Two Iraqis in civilian clothes lay dead near blazing vehicles on the road into this southern Iraqi port attacked by US Marines today.
Blood dripped from a wounded Iraqi sitting nearby. Women flagged down Marine medics who stopped to help.
The Marines had expected an easy ride into Umm Qasr, just across the border from Kuwait. But an Iraqi battalion reinforced the border to protect the route to the key port earlier this week, US officers said.
The Iraqis pinned down the advancing Marines for two hours with a barrage of anti-tank missiles and machineguns until British artillery smashed buildings where the Iraqis were dug in. “We have come here to liberate them and they want to fight us'” joked one Marine as he took shelter from the fire.
The Marines, part of an invasion the Pentagon has dubbed “Operation Iraqi Freedom”, later raised the Stars and Stripes over Umm Qasr’s new port compound, pulling down the Iraqi flag.
Bullets riddled the wall around a huge canvas portrait of President Saddam Hussein at the entrance of Aluboor Marine Terminal. Marines later cut down the picture as a souvenir. Six port workers emerged from the relatively undamaged installation with their hands up. The old port of Umm Qasr, about 1.5 km away, had not yet been taken.
About 30 Iraqi soldiers surrendered on the outskirts of Umm Qasr, which the Marines said would be used as an entry point for humanitarian supplies into Iraq once it is secured.
Elsewhere, US and British forces poured into Iraq almost unopposed, less than 24 hours after the US unleashed war with a Baghdad missile strike targeting Saddam.
Reuters correspondent Luke Baker, with the US 3rd Infantry Division, said over 2,000 tanks, armoured vehicles, Humvees, trucks, fuel carriers and artillery had lumbered into Iraq from Kuwait before sunrise, meeting little opposition.
As the invasion raced ahead, officers predicted a swift victory. A British military spokesman forecast British and American forces would be in Baghdad in three to four days.
British Marine commandos seized the Faw peninsula and its vital oil terminals in an airborne and amphibious assault as US armoured columns set off on a desert dash to Baghdad.
A 12-hour artillery barrage heralded the offensive and large explosions lit up the night sky in the direction of Iraq's second city of Basra — an early target in the land campaign.