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Friday, March 21

Troops move farther into Iraq, deaths, injuries reported

By John Yaukey and Carl Weiser | GNS

WASHINGTON - The United States suffered its first combat casualty of the Iraq war Friday, as troops pushed on toward Baghdad and missiles continued to strike the Iraqi capital. It also suffered its first serious friendly fire incident.

U.S. Central Command spokesman Navy Ensign David Luckett confirmed Friday morning that a Marine had been killed in combat. Other details were not immediately available.

"All of us involved here in Washington are extremely proud of the young Americans who are willing to sacrifice for something greater than themselves," President Bush said Friday. "We will stay on task until we've achieved our objective, which is to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and free the Iraqi people."

The combat casualty followed a helicopter crash that killed four American and eight British troops.

The U.S. Marine Corps CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter, assigned to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, crashed about 7:40 p.m. EST (3:40 a.m. Friday in Kuwait) south of Umm Qasr in an area where there were no reports of hostile fire, according to U.S. Central Command.

There were no survivors. The names and units of the casualties were being withheld pending next of kin notification.

In the friendly fire incident, which occurred sometime during the night late Thursday or early Friday, a Marine Cobra attack helicopter fired a Hellfire anti-tank missile into a U.S. Marine M-1 Abrams tank. All four tank crewmembers survived, but one was injured. Details on the incident were unavailable.

War planners were holding back on a much larger air and ground assault in the hope that the Iraqi leadership will crumble before they start.

Naval units sought to soften resistance and minimize casualties in Baghdad - where ground forces could face tough urban combat - by giving civilians and soldiers there plenty to think about with a second day of nerve-rattling nighttime missile strikes.

"We have broad and deep evidence that suggests that there are people going through a very serious decision-making process throughout that country today, and that is a good thing," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday. "The Iraqi soldiers and officers must ask themselves whether they want to die fighting for a doomed regime or do they want to survive."

Earlier Thursday, Marine and Army units based in Kuwait crossed into southern Iraq where they encountered some light resistance. The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, the Army's 101st Airborne Division and its 7th Cavalry all advanced into Iraq.

Also Thursday:

- Iraqi forces apparently lit several oil wells ablaze near the southern city of Basra, suggesting that they might be prepared to destroy their oil fields as part of a scorched earth campaign.

- Congress passed a resolution commending Bush and the armed forces. The resolution said Congress and the public "have the greatest pride in the men and women of the United States armed forces and the civilian personnel supporting them and strongly support them in their efforts."

It passed the Senate 99-0, and the House 392-11.

- Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves, was called to active duty.

(Contributing: Jon Frandsen and Derrick DePledge, GNS; Sean D. Naylor and C. Mark Brinkley, Military Times)