Iraq war diary: 21 March, 2003

To mark the tenth anniversary of the 2003 Iraq war, I am re-posting diary entries that I wrote at the time for the Guardian's website. They are posted here day by day and the full collection can be found here

21 March 2003: 

After an initial diversion to take pot-shots at Saddam Hussein yesterday, the war is now well under way, but mercifully without the "shock and awe" tactics that had been predicted for the opening phase.

Military chiefs have not entirely abandoned the idea of a massive bombing campaign but are waiting to see if Iraqi forces can be persuaded to give up the fight without it.

If "shock and awe" can be avoided there will be less risk of heavy civilian casualties and less damage to be repaired afterwards. So far, there has been little resistance from the Iraqi army, which is heavily outgunned by western technology – though the threat to invading forces could become more serious as they approach Baghdad.

Iraq has fired a number of missiles at Kuwait and there is argument as to whether any of them were Scuds. If they were, it would be proof that Saddam has been lying about his weaponry.

An unspecified number of oil fires have been detected by satellites, suggesting that Saddam may be resorting to scorched-earth tactics, as he did towards the end of the 1991 war in Kuwait. If carried out on a large scale, this would not only slow progress of the invasion but delay Iraq's postwar recovery as well as causing long-term environmental damage.

Yesterday, American and British forces advanced into southern Iraq, with British marines launching an assault on the strategically important Faw peninsula. The port of Umm Qasr, just across the border from Kuwait, was also captured.

This morning, there are reports of US tanks moving rapidly through the desert towards Baghdad, meeting little resistance along the way. Whether they are heading immediately to Baghdad is unclear – it could be partly a psychological move to frighten the Iraqi leadership.

The war also brought its first western casualties yesterday when a helicopter crashed in Kuwait, killing 12 British soldiers and four American crew. There is no suggestion that the aircraft was shot down.

Baghdad came under renewed attack last night from some 60 cruise missiles aimed at government and military targets. One of the buildings hit was the planning ministry. Explosions were also heard in Basra in southern Iraq and Mosul in the north.

Today, apart from the fast-moving developments in the south, attention is also likely to focus on the north, where the picture is still far from clear. The US is anxious to secure this area early because of the possibility of independent action by Kurdish forces, or even by Turkey.

Outside Iraq, opposition to the war continues strongly. Britain and France clashed again last night at a European summit in Brussels. One of the arguments – which is likely to grow louder in the coming weeks – is about who should pay for rebuilding Iraq after the war. France has already suggested that those who cause the damage should foot the bill.

On the streets, there have also been worldwide protests, with hundreds arrested in the United States. In Britain. Even schoolchildren have been skipping classes to attend demonstrations – some of them organised via text messages. Riot police were out in force in Cairo yesterday, lashing out with batons at protesters who directed their anger at President Hosni Mubarak as well as the United States.

As today is the first Friday since the outbreak of war – a Muslim holiday – further protests can be expected in the Middle East after midday prayers.

Anger may be further inflamed by Israel's announcement that the US has offered $10bn (£6.4bn) to support its crisis-ridden economy. Although the US has not confirmed the offer, this is liable to be viewed in the region as further evidence of American double standards.

Posted by Brian Whitaker 
Thursday, 21 March 2013