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U.S. boosts northern Iraq front

Paratroopers secure a northern Iraq airfield for coalition use.

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About 1,000 paratroopers from the U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade jump into northern Iraq.
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BASHUR, Iraq (CNN) -- The U.S. military began building up its northern front in Iraq Thursday, after dropping 1,000 paratroopers into the region to secure a key airfield in the country's Kurdish-controlled zone.

Soldiers from the U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade landed at the Harir airfield near Bashur in northeastern Iraq in an early dawn drop Thursday, CNN's Correspondent Brent Sadler, who was at the airfield, reported.

The U.S. Army plans to use the strip to bring in 1st Infantry Division tanks and armored personnel carriers from Germany. (Full story)

Baghdad shook to the sound and fury of a series of explosions Thursday afternoon as the U.S.-led war against Iraq approached its second weekend. The now-familiar thick black smoke billowed above the city from several locations.

At a joint news conference at Camp David, Maryland, U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair called on the United Nations Thursday to immediately resume the oil-for-food program in Iraq.

Bush and Blair answered reporters' questions after meeting privately to discuss the Iraq situation. More than half Iraq's citizens depend on the program for food, Bush said.

Bush said that coalition forces were "advancing day by day" through Iraq. He added that Saddam Hussein would be removed from power "no matter how long it takes." (Full Story)

Meanwhile, the delivery of humanitarian aid to the port of Umm Qasr in the south was delayed another day when British mine-clearing teams discovered two more mines outside the main shipping channel. Britain's RFA Sir Galahad is filled with more than 200 tons of supplies. (Full story)

A U.S. Central Command spokesman said Thursday that "we may never know" precisely what happened at a Baghdad marketplace on Wednesday when Iraqis said 15 civilians had died after an explosion, but the destruction probably was not caused by a coalition bomb.

"We think it's entirely possible that this may have been in fact an Iraqi missile that either went up and came down, or given the behaviors of the regime lately, it may have been a deliberate attack inside of town," said Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks at the daily Central Command briefing. (Full story)

The Iraqi death toll now stands at more than 350, the country's health minister Umid Midhat Mubarak said Thursday, with a further 4,000 civilians injured.

He accused coalition fighters of targeting Iraqi civilians, saying "women and children are being attacked, as soldiers are being attacked." ('Civilians targeted')

In London British military officials said Thursday they found chemical weapons protection suits when Iraqi infantry abandoned a headquarters facility in the oil fields of southern Iraq. Adm. Sir Michael Boyce, the chief of British Defence Staff, told a news conference. (Full story)

But he added that British troops did not find any weapons of mass destruction.

British Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon told the same news conference that bad weather conditions had allowed British and U.S. forces time to rest and consolidate.

The blowing sand the last two days have limited the use of some missiles and bombs, and kept many military helicopters grounded. Many of the coalition's high-tech advantages have been neutralized by the sandstorms.

A British military commander said Thursday his troops were on the outskirts of Basra aiming to wipe out the ruling Baath Party "militia" but played down reports of a civilian uprising against Iraqi forces in the southern Iraqi city. (Full Story)

Air Marshal Brian Burridge, the commander of British forces in the Gulf, said that UK soldiers faced "stiff opposition" from a mixture of Iraqi forces.

Attempts were being made to get Iraq's oilfields back in operation after British forces took control.

Clearing Iraq's booby-trapped southern oil fields and getting them ready for production will take three months and cost upwards of $1 billion, said Britain's Burridge.

Iraqi forces rigged explosives throughout the Rumaila oil fields in the south ahead of the war's start a week ago, but were only able to set nine of the well heads ablaze.(Full story)

Other developments

• Iraq-Intimidation: Coalition officials said Thursday said that pro-Saddam Hussein forces in Najaf and Basra are threatening Iraqis with death if they don't pick up arms against U.S.-led forces.

• At Kalak, coalition air forces dropped at least three large bombs on Iraqi positions Thursday morning, near the line of demarcation between the Kurdish zone and territory controlled by the Iraqi regime, reported CNN Correspondent Ben Wedeman, who saw and heard two planes in the air overhead.

• A British military spokesman said Thursday that the two men shown on an Arab television network Wednesday who were purported to be British prisoners of war are not soldiers and may have been on a humanitarian mission inside Iraq. British officials demanded that they be released immediately.

• A top U.S. military official accused Iraqi forces of committing war crimes by executing prisoners of war, using civilians as human shields and hiding command posts in hospitals. "They have executed prisoners of war," said Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on CNN's "Larry King Live." "To do it so blatantly, so early -- not only is it a surprise, but to me, it's disgusting." (Full story)

• Forty-seven U.S. and British military personnel have been confirmed killed since the conflict began. (Coalition casualties)

CNN Correspondents Christiane Amanpour, Jason Bellini, Tom Mintier, Steve Nettleton, Karl Penhaul, Nic Robertson, Walter Rodgers, Brent Sadler, Martin Savidge, Kevin Sites, Barbara Starr and Alessio Vinci contributed to this report.

EDITOR'S NOTE: CNN's policy is to not report information that puts operational security at risk.

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