Pvt. Brian Bollan, 19, from Detroit, Mich., readies his equipment on his Humvee gunner position. Bollan serves in the 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment scout platoon.

Pvt. Brian Bollan, 19, from Detroit, Mich., readies his equipment on his Humvee gunner position. Bollan serves in the 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment scout platoon. (Joseph Giordono / S&S)

ON THE IRAQ BORDER — The sounds of cruise missles, artillery and cheering infantrymen echoed across the desert overnight Thursday as the 3rd Infantry Division launched the ground war on Iraqi troops.

The division’s artillery opened fire, using Paladin self-propelled howitzers and multiple launch rocket systems in the first stage of the ground war.

Maj. Gen. Buford Blount, the division commander, had said the artillery barrage would signal the first phase of the ground war against Iraq.

White light glowed in the sky above the cannons as more than 100 artillery shells were fired in the direction of southern Iraq.

Explosions inside Iraq could be heard. No fire was being returned.

Intelligence reports suggest that, other than in the city of Basra, U.S. forces are expecting little to no resistance at the border. In fact, U.S. military officials said Thursday that almost 30 Iraqi soldiers — mostly border guards at observation posts — had already surrendered to coalition forces.

The move to final attack positions was greeted with more shouts of joy by the scout platoon of the 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment. It has been in country almost continuously since May and see the way north as the shortest route home to the States.

“Let’s do it,” said Sgt. Terrence Grant of the Scout Platoon. “We’ve been waiting here a long time for this, so it’s time to get it on.”

The eagerness to cross the border doesn’t seem to be born of false bravado; it seems more a combination of confidence in the overwhelming superiority of firepower and the desire to get home after so long in the desert.

The ground war was launched about an hour after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld promised: “The days of the Saddam Hussein regime are numbered.”

Rumsfeld, in his first news conference since the war began, said the United States had hit a senior Iraqi leadership position in its initial strikes. He offered no details, saying a damage assessment was pending.

The assault “was the first,” he said. “It likely will not be the last.”

The day was not without its harrowing moments. At approximately 1:15 p.m. local time Thursday, a call went out over the command radio net indicating that an Iraqi Scud launch had been detected.

That announcement was quickly followed by orders to unpack chemical protection suits and be ready to don them at a moment’s notice. Ten minutes later, however, another radio message was put out saying that the Scud had been intercepted by a Patriot missile battery.

“I think that everyone is a little bit nervous, but we’re more than ready to get this going,” said Pvt. Brian Bollan, a 19-year-old scout from Detroit, Mich.

Late Thursday afternoon, the scout platoon drove a reconnaissance mission along the route to be used for the border crossing. American military engineers had already broken wide holes in the dirt birms that mark the soon-to-be-former demilitarized zone.

The engineers also had cleared a wide swath of any potential minefields.

As darkness fell over Task Force 1-15, whose soldiers tried to sleep inside their vehicles, atop tanks or next to Humvee gun turrets, all eyes were cast skyward.

Dozens of cruise missiles whizzed overhead, en route to multiple destinations in Iraq. Artillery from the 3rd Infantry Division added to the barrage, pummeling sites near the border and “shaping the battlefield.”

Reporter Joe Giordono is embedded with the 3rd Infantry Division. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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