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By Dave Montgomery, Knight RidderEuropean edition, Thursday, April 3, 2003

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Allied air forces, which have been battering Republican Guard units and Iraqi leadership positions since the start of the war, are poised to provide a massive blanket of air cover for U.S.-led ground troops closing in on Baghdad.

For hundreds of coalition warplanes, the battle of Baghdad began on the first day of the war, two weeks ago, with the start of a relentless bombing campaign aimed at softening the Iraqi capital for an eventual invasion by ground forces.

With coalition troops now within striking distance of Baghdad, at least 85 percent of the combat missions flown by allied warplanes will aim to provide air cover to smooth the way for invading ground forces, a senior military officer said on condition of anonymity.

Defense experts say the 2-week-old air war is achieving its objective by savaging once-vaunted Republican Guard units blocking approaches to Baghdad. The aerial assault has also targeted command-and-control installations in an attempt to sever communication lines between the leadership and Iraqi field units.

"I would say there is no question that air power has been very effective," said Bob Martinage, a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. "They have really cut off the Iraqi leadership to a significant degree."

Since the air war started, U.S. and British aircraft have averaged about 1,000 missions a day, ranging from combat strikes to refueling and air transport. The air raids intensified over the past two days, with assaults on presidential palaces, government buildings, troop installation and anti-aircraft emplacements.

Allied aircraft have peppered Iraq with nearly 10,000 bombs and 700 cruise missiles. At least 90 percent of the munitions are precision-guided, according to Air Force officials, compared with about 8 percent during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Pilots have confronted no enemy aircraft but have run a gantlet of surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery fire. Much of the ground fire appears random, several pilots said, suggesting that Iraqis are avoiding using radar for fear it will attract radar-seeking High Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles, or HARM, fired from U.S. strike planes.

"If he brings his radar up, we're going to smack it," said Lt. Col. Bryan Bearden, an F-16 pilot and commander of the 363rd Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron operating out of a desert air base.

Maj. Alan B. Coker, a KC-135 tanker pilot from Richland Hills, Texas, said the round-the-clock strikes are so frequent that aerial refuelers are struggling to keep supplied.

"We are burning it faster than we can keep up," he said.

The air war had consumed 22.3 million gallons of fuel by early this week, military officials said.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said "powerful, sustained and precise" air attacks have been particularly effective at breaking Iraq's line of communications.

"The regime is … in the process of losing its ability to effectively communicate with its forces," he said.

Although the air war appears successful, Rumsfeld and senior Pentagon officials have drawn criticism among some analysts and former military officers for perceived miscues.

Aviation Week and Space Technology, in its March 31 edition, said former and active Air Force officials complained privately that military leaders were slow to target enemy ground forces and thus slowed the allied assault.

For Capt. Dan Munter, a 27-year-old F-16 pilot from Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., who has flown seven missions over Baghdad, the coming ground offensive against the Iraqi capital cannot come soon enough.

"Everybody figures that's kind of the final battle," he said. "And once that's over, it's time for a lot of us to go home."

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