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Friday, March 21

One Marine killed, another injured as ground war intensifies

By Sean Naylor and C. Mark Brinkley | Military Times

DOHA, QATAR - In the first full day of ground fighting in Iraq, the United States suffered its first combat death and had its first serious experience with a friendly fire incident.

U.S. and British forces secured key oil facilities and a U.S. Army cavalry unit raced 100 miles north across open desert in the direction of Baghdad. Other U.S. troops beat back a surprise encounter with Iraqi tanks, destroying 11 of them.

Military officials provided no details on the combat death, except to say the victim was a Marine.

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 M1A1 Abrams tank. All four tank crewmembers survived, but one was injured. Details on the incident were unavailable.

Marines encountered some resistance as they advanced on and eventually took port facilities at Umm Qasr in southern Iraq.

To the west of where the Marines were fighting, the 3rd squadron, 7th cavalry regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division began a live-on-television sprint across the desert. Before the charge began, other 3rd Infantry Division troops had to punch a hole through dirt berms at the border. Those troops were surprised to encounter Iraqi tanks.

"We had a lot heavier contact than we thought," division commander Maj. Gen. Buford Blount said. "We destroyed 11 tanks and some other tracked vehicles. I think they'd come in during the dust storm when the UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) weren't flying. We had no reports that there were going to be any tanks in there so it was a surprise."

The cavalry unit, accompanied by television crews that broadcast their race across the desert to a live, worldwide audience, encountered almost no resistance. It did locate and destroy one mobile anti-aircraft gun.

Blount said the ground assault was originally planned to begin Friday night but was moved ahead 24 hours.

The change was made because the Iraqis had set fire to some oil wells and because they were firing an unexpected number of missiles toward American positions. None of the missiles did any damage but the Americans decided it was best to move out rather than remain stationary targets.

In other fighting, British Royal Marines staged a night air and amphibious assault on the Al Faw peninsula at southernmost Iraq.

The U.K. forces secured an oil-pumping terminal there, which "stops the threat of pollution," according to British military spokesman Royal Air Force Group Capt. Al Lockwood.

Officials had worried the Iraqis would pump oil into the Persian Gulf from the terminal on Al Faw.

Lockwood said the British had encountered only light resistance.

The terminal is in the same area where, about 3:00 a.m. local time on Friday, a U.S. Marine CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter crashed, killing all four American crewmembers and eight British troops on board. No immediate cause of the crash was determined, although the military said it did not believe enemy fire was the cause.

Sean D. Naylor and C. Mark Brinkley are reporting for Gannett News Service with Gannett's Military Times newspapers.