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U.S. captures Iraqi airfield; Bush works to quiet critics

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March 27, 2003 Posted: 12:29 AM EST (0529 GMT)
Stf. Sgt. John Coughlin aims a precision rifle with Pfc. Daniel Tracy's help during a patrol Wednesday in central Iraq. Both are members of the 3rd battalion 4th Marines.
Stf. Sgt. John Coughlin aims a precision rifle with Pfc. Daniel Tracy's help during a patrol Wednesday in central Iraq. Both are members of the 3rd battalion 4th Marines.  

About 1,000 soldiers from the U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade parachuted into northern Iraq on Wednesday. Following one of the largest airborne drops in decades, the troops secured an airfield in a region controlled by the country's Kurdish ethnic minority. The U.S. hopes to use the area to fly in more tanks and armored personnel carriers for the fight against Iraqi troops.

In another development, the Pentagon confirmed that a second serviceman died from wounds he received in a grenade attack on Sunday. Air Force Maj. Gregory Stone was an air liaison officer with the Army's 101st Airborne Division at Camp Pennsylvania in Kuwait. A combat engineer from the division is being held in connection with the attack.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said Wednesday that its teams in Iraq and Kuwait are working to gain access to prisoners of war. The Geneva Conventions, which make provisions for such prisoners, allow Red Cross visits to those caught in action on both sides of a given conflict.

Meanwhile, officials have begun to distribute humanitarian aid in the form of food and water throughout southern Iraq. A key entry point for relief supplies will be the Iraqi port city of Umm Qasr, which British forces say they have secured.

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However, a possible challenge to coalition supply lines could lie in the strength of Iraq's so-called Saddam Fedayeen paramilitary fighters. Soldiers in the group are among the most feared of Iraqi forces. Officials said Wednesday that the U.S. may have underestimated the capability of the Saddam Fedayeen paramilitary group.

Tens of thousands of soldiers make up the Saddam Fedayeen force. The group was founded in 1995 by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's son, Uday Hussein. Saddam Fedayeen is said to have the authority to bypass the chain of Iraqi military command and to report directly to the Presidential Palace.

President Bush spoke in Florida on Wednesday during his visit to MacDill Air Force Base - the headquarters of the U.S. Central Command. While he was there, the president cautioned that the war in Iraq "is not easy and it may be long."

The U.S. commander in chief appeared determined to challenge critics of Washington's war strategy, according to CNN's John King. "We have an effective plan of battle and the flexibility to meet every challenge. Nothing - nothing will divert us from our clear mission," President Bush said.

To those who have said that Washington's war plan underestimated the amount of Iraqi resistance, Bush pointed out the progress of coalition forces. "Day by day, Saddam Hussein is losing his grip on Iraq. Day by day, the Iraqi people are closer to freedom," Bush said.

The president thanked the families of U.S. troops for their sacrifices, and he warned against the mistreatment of U.S. troops captured in combat. The president also had lunch with military personnel at the U.S. Central Command and received a detailed update on efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bush's main goal on Wednesday was to quiet critics of the war strategy. However, while the president was aboard Air Force One, he crossed out a line in his speech that declared the war effort was "ahead of schedule." Such a move might cause critics to further question U.S. progress. But a senior aide to the president said that Bush was only being conservative in his public assessments of the war. The aide added that the president did not doubt the U.S. battle plan or the process of putting it into action.

Later Wednesday, Bush headed back to Washington to discuss strategy in the war with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Three main topics on the agenda were the coming siege of Baghdad, international efforts to provide the Iraqi people with more humanitarian aid, and what the postwar role of the United Nations will be.

John King reported that the British leader favors a more immediate and more robust postwar role for the U.N. than President Bush. Though Bush and Blair have said that the U.N. will be able to take part in the postwar administration of Iraq, the U.S. appears to be more skeptical about how prominent and how quick any U.N. involvement should be.

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