Two Apache Pilots Missing; Progress Against Baghdad 'Rapid'
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Mar. 24, 2003 Two American Apache helicopter crewmen are missing in action as coalition forces continue to pound Iraqi Republican Guard units ringing Baghdad, Army Gen. Tommy Franks said today in Qatar.
Franks, the combined forces commander, said coalition forces are operating throughout Iraq and that "progress toward our objectives has been rapid and in some cases dramatic."
News reports said that the British also have personnel missing in action. Franks would not comment.
"I won't talk about the Brit potential missing troops any more than I would talk about the specifics of our helicopter pilots or of the youngsters in this maintenance company," he said. "I will say, and I've seen speculation in a number of places, that a coalition like this would take action, where action is appropriate, to secure the release of people who are taken prisoners."
He said fighting in rear areas now is the result of a conscious decision. "We have intentionally bypassed enemy formations, to include paramilitary and the Fedayeen," he said. Franks said he expects clean-up operations to continue for several days.
The Fedayeen - irregular Iraqi troops - may create difficulties for coalition forces. "I can assure you that contact with those forces is not unexpected," Franks said.
Brig Gen. Vince Brooks, the deputy operations chief at U.S. Central Command, spoke about the contributions special operations forces are making to Operation Iraqi Freedom. He said U.S., British and Australian special operations personnel continue to conduct numerous missions throughout Iraq.
"They are actively hunting for weapons of mass destruction and also looking for ballistic missile systems," Brooks said. "And they are on track, and they are doing exactly what they need to be doing at this point."
Brooks said the land component continues to expand its territory in Iraq. This includes continuing the advance beyond An Nasiriyah and an aviation attack against Republican Guard forces near Baghdad. It was during that attack that the Apache attack helicopter was downed. "All the other helicopters involved in the mission did accomplish the mission and returned safely to base," he said.
Ground units also secured Basra Airport, all of the Rumailah oil field and an ammunition storage area near An Najaf, Brooks said.
Journalists embedded with the unit that took An Najaf reported that there might be chemical weapons at the site. Franks could not confirm this.
He said the coalition is concerned about taking down Saddam Hussein's regime and about ridding the nation of weapons of mass destruction. "It's a bit early for us to have an expectation of having found them," he said.
The search for the weapons is called "sensitive site exploitation," Franks explained. "We will do some sensitive site exploitation as we go along, and we'll do other sensitive site exploitation a bit later in the campaign," he said.
Franks also spoke about possible Iraqi use of weapons of mass destruction. "There is a school of thought that says as the compression becomes tighter and tighter and tighter, the pressure will be greater and greater to use these weapons," he said. "We don't know whether the regime will use these weapons." His advice to the Iraqi soldiers who would actually fire the weapons is: "Don't do it."
He said the maritime component of the command is clearing the waterway leading to the port city of Umm Qasr. There are ships full of humanitarian supplies waiting in the Persian Gulf. The main beneficiary right now will be the people of Basra, Iraq's second largest city, who will "have more access to food and more access to water than they have had in decades."