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Contact behind bomb curtain

Washington, March 22: As US and British ground forces advanced further into Iraq and Baghdad took a second night of bomb and missile hits, the Bush administration is hoping that the “shock and awe” air campaign which began tonight to crush Saddam Hussein’s regime can yet be stopped from acquiring its full, brutal force.

Even as Baghdad came under intensified bombing from B-52s based in Britain, defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld briefed American lawmakers that direct contacts between the US and the Iraqi army were in progress.

He hoped the “full force and fury of a war” could be averted if the bulk of Saddam’s fighting forces defected or surrendered without resistance.

“There are communications in every conceivable mode and method, public and private,” Rumsfeld confirmed to reporters after the meeting with Congressional leaders.

In addition to contacts with the Iraq army — including the elite Republican Guard — attributed to Rumsfeld, American planes are dropping millions of leaflets all over Iraq telling soldiers how to deal with US forces in case units decided to give up without a fight.

“That regime is history,” Rumsfeld said of Saddam’s presidency. But if Iraqi soldiers fought to defend it, Rumsfeld warned that the attack they will face “will not be a repeat of any other conflict. It will be of a force and scope and scale... beyond what has been seen before”.

The second full day of military operations began here with mixed feelings. The death of eight British and four US Marines in a helicopter crash over Kuwait and news of the first combat casualty of two US Marines was balanced by the success in capturing the southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr.

But the news which brought perceptible relief at the Pentagon and the state department was the fall of two airfields about 140 and 180 miles west of Baghdad into American hands.

The airfields, known as H-2 and H-3, could have been Saddam’s bases for launching missiles against Israel as in the 1991 Gulf war.

The Bush administration has been edgy about any attack on Israel and the response it would elicit from the government of hardline Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, which, in turn, would have had very negative reactions in countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar hosting US forces.

President George W. Bush told Congressional leaders shortly after news about the capture of the airfields and Umm Qasr was confirmed here that the US is “making progress” in the war.

“We will stay on task until we have achieved our objective, which is (to) rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and free the Iraqi people so they can live in a society that is hopeful, democratic and at peace with its neighbours,” the President said.

As the attacks progressed, the administration began efforts to repair the damage it had suffered on the diplomatic front with the UN Security Council’s refusal to authorise the use of force on Iraq and Washington’s isolation from the community of nations.

Bush dined with Paul Biya, the President of Cameroon, a member of the UN Security Council which had refused to side with the US despite unspecified inducements from the administration.

At the UN, Britain and the US put together a resolution which would authorise secretary-general Kofi Annan to take temporary charge of the “oil for food” programme that allows Iraq’s government to spend oil revenues on food, medicine and humanitarian supplies for Iraq’s people.

But it was clear that recent weeks of bitterness among Security Council members had not abated when Russia’s ambassador to the UN rebuffed the resolution and argued that “it is for (the secretary general) and not for anybody else to give these proposals”.

In other developments, Bush authorised the US treasury department to seize over $1.4 billion of Iraqi government money in US banks, which had been frozen since 1990.

Together with $600 million frozen by the UK and 10 other countries, the funds will now be used for rebuilding Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s regime is overthrown, according to treasury secretary John Snow.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) announced yesterday seven contracts will be awarded to American companies for the early stages of reconstruction of post-war Iraq.

“We expect UN agencies will be involved in a major way,” USAID administrator Andrew Natsios said.

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