Troops storm towards Baghdad

COALITION troops may be in Baghdad "within three or four days", a spokesman for British forces in the Gulf said today.He was commenting as tanks from the US 7th Cavalry sped towards the Iraqi capital meeting little resistance.

COALITION troops may be in Baghdad "within three or four days", a spokesman for British forces in the Gulf said today.

He was commenting as tanks from the US 7th Cavalry sped towards the Iraqi capital meeting little resistance.

In the south of Iraq, allied forces were continuing to consolidate gains made overnight after the launch of the ground invasion.

Royal Marines seized oil facilities in the Al Faw peninsula and US Marines raised the US flag over the key southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr today after overcoming only light resistance, according to reports.


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Group Captain Al Lockwood, a British military spokesman told reporters at the main allied command centre in Qatar, he believed coalition forces could be in the Iraqi capital in as little as three days.

He said: "If I was a betting man, and I'm not, I would say hopefully within the next three or four days.''

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In a possible sign that Baghdad was about to face further attacks a wave US B-52 bombers began taking off today from RAF Fairford.

The Gloucestershire-based bombers have yet to see action in the war against Saddam Hussein.

The first allied casualties of the war were reported today as allied forces continued to push into Iraq.

Eight British servicemen died when their American helicopter crashed in the Kuwaiti desert, British military officials confirmed.

They were on board the CH-46 Sea Knight aircraft as part of the invading force of allied troops involved in seizing oilfields on the Al Faw peninsula - the first major operation in the invasion of Iraq.

The American crew of four also died.

A US marine became the first hostile casualty of the war when he was killed in southern Iraq.

Prime Minister Tony Blair paid tribute today to the eight British commandos who died when their US helicopter crashed overnight.

Speaking after a European Union summit in Brussels, Mr Blair said they were brave men who had given their lives to make British people's lives safer.

Despite the setback, British operations in Iraq appeared to be going well, said the Prime Minister, who confirmed that UK troops would be taking part in air and ground operations once more tonight.

Mr Blair said: "I would like to express my personal condolences and those of the Government to the servicemen who were killed in the helicopter crash overnight.

"These were brave men who in order to make us safer and more secure, knew the risks, faced the risks and had the courage to serve their country and the wider world.

"We owe them an enormous debt of gratitude and our thoughts and prayers are with their families."

Royal Marines commandos stormed the Al Faw peninsula to capture key oil facilities last night.

Their lightning offensive began at about 7.25pm UK time with heavy artillery shelling before elite troops stormed numerous installations.

Six Iraqis were said to have been killed, 16 captured and one vehicle destroyed but there were no reports of any US or British casualties.

Some parts of the Al Faw complex had been set alight, but Group Capt Lockwood told PA News they had secured the oil facilities and were now moving up the peninsula.

The troops met only "light resistance'' and suffered no casualties, he said, adding: "They have secured the beachhead and moved up along the peninsula to secure the oil infrastructure.''

A wave of B-52 bombers took off today from RAF Fairford.

Eight giant bombers, which have been expected to play a key role in the bombing of Iraq, took off one after the other from the Gloucestershire base shortly after 10am.

A further wave took off an hour later.

In recent days the eight-engine bombers, which carry an awesome arsenal of weapons including cruise missiles, have been seen being loaded up.

It is the first time that so many of the jets have left the base in one sortie.

The planes, which have an 8,000-mile range, could hit Iraqi targets within around six hours of leaving Britain.

On the ground, the 7th US Cavalry in Abrams main battle tanks and Bradley personnel carriers were "charging to Baghdad'', in the words of CNN TV reporter Walter Rodgers, who is travelling with them.

After an initial skirmish with Iraqi troops when they burst out of Kuwait, the Apache and Crazy Horse troops of the cavalry raced across the desert at 25mph for hours without meeting any opposition.

Baghdad is about 300 miles from the Kuwaiti border – the same distance as from London to Newcastle.

Waiting to follow them was the 3rd Infantry Division.

However, Rodgers said the US troops were "realistic'' that they would have to fight nearer to Baghdad, particularly the Iraqi Republican Guard.

The apparent ease of their passage so far had been the "lull before the storm'', he said, adding: "Every soldier knows the way they're heading and their objectives and there will be a hard fight ahead.''

In a separate offensive to the west of Basra, troops from the 7th Parachute Regiment Royal Horse Artillery helped US soldiers securing oilfields from possible sabotage.

Coalition forces in northern Kuwait carried out a heavy bombardment of the area around Umm Qasr before today's breakthrough.

Securing the port should set the stage for the capture of Basra, which lies just 20 miles from the Kuwait border.

Some units in southern Iraq, like the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, have already met resistance.

The troops were pinned down by Iraqi anti-tank rockets and small arms fire just yards after crossing the border, according to BBC correspondent Adam Mynott.

He said the convoy he was in had been forced to retreat and it was unclear whether one vehicle had been hit. British artillery fire had been called in.

"We're now taking cover behind a sand bank,'' he said. "There is sustained gunfire coming from Iraqi positions.''

He added: "Resistance is stronger than had been expected.''

But hundreds of Iraqis have also been surrendering.

The US 15th Marine Expeditionary Force advancing in southern Iraq today encountered 200 or more Iraqi troops seeking to surrender.

European leaders today expressed personal condolences to Mr Blair today over last night's helicopter crash in Kuwait.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Irish premier Bertie Ahern and Spain's Jose Marie Aznar went over to Mr Blair at the start of the second day of an European Union summit in Brussels.

Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, Dutch leader Jan-Peter Balkenende, and Denmark's Anders Fogh Rassmussen did the same.

"They all offered their personal condolences before the meeting happened,'' said a Government spokesman.

Asked if French President Jacques Chirac had done the same, the spokesman replied: "The French President was late for the start of the meeting.''

However Mr Blair said later that he had handed him a letter of condolence at the meeting.

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