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WASHINGTON (AP) -- American ships and warplanes have launched 500 cruise missiles and several hundred precision weapons on Iraq over the past day, the Pentagon said Saturday.
American forces have progressed 150 miles into Iraq, halfway to Baghdad, said Brig. Gen. Stanley McChrystal of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Warplanes flew 1,000 missions from aircraft carriers and air bases in the region, he said at a Pentagon news conference.
U.S. forces also have successfully crossed the Euphrates River, the major waterway en route to the capital, McChrystal said.
Iraqi soldiers, "including some leadership," are surrendering and defecting in large numbers, Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke said.
"It is only a matter of time before the Iraqi regime is destroyed and its threat to the region ... is ended," she said.
Also Saturday, the U.S. military abandoned plans to open a northern front against Iraq that would have sent heavy armored forces streaming across the Turkish border.
Two U.S. defense officials said dozens of U.S. ships carrying weaponry for the Army's 4th Infantry Division will head to the Persian Gulf after weeks of waiting off Turkey's coast while the two countries tried to reach a deal.
The decision makes it more likely that Army airborne troops will join small numbers of U.S. special operations forces already on the ground in northern Iraq, where American officials fear clashes between Turkish forces and Iraqi Kurds.
The region is an important battleground because of the Kurdish presence in enclaves not controlled by the Iraqi government. Turkey fears the Kurds will seize the northern oil fields or establish an independent state, thus complicating Turkey's conflict with its own Kurdish minority.
The Pentagon wanted to put a heavy armored force into northern Iraq and had designated the 4th Infantry for that mission. The only feasible avenue for them to reach northern Iraq was from bases in Turkey, an option foreclosed by the Turkish government.
With U.S. ground forces advancing toward Baghdad, Pentagon officials expressed concerns the troops might come across Republican Guard troops armed with chemical weapons.
"We would be hopeful that those with their triggers on these weapons understand what Secretary Don Rumsfeld said in his comments yesterday: `Don't use it. Don't use it,"' Gen. Tommy Franks, the top U.S. war commander, said Saturday at a news conference at his Persian Gulf command post.
The administration had once believed it could count on NATO ally Turkey to support the creation of a northern front against Iraq. But after weeks of wrangling over financial compensation and arrangements for Turkish forces to join the Americans in northern Iraq, the Pentagon has given up.
The Turkish military on Saturday denied reports that 1,000 of its commandos had crossed into northern Iraq. On Friday a military official has said soldiers in armored personnel carriers rolled into northeastern Iraq near where the borders of Turkey, Iraq and Iran converge.
But on Saturday that was denied, and Pentagon officials said they saw no sign of a Turkish incursion. Franks said the only Turkish troops in northern Iraq were "very light formations."
About 40 ships carrying the 4th Infantry Division's weaponry and equipment were to begin moving through the Suez Canal on Sunday, said one U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The 4th Infantry's soldiers, who remained at Fort Hood, Texas, after their weaponry and equipment went to the Mediterranean last month, are likely to go to Kuwait, the officials said.
The original plan had the entire division of about 17,500 soldiers heading to Turkey, along with some Army troops based in Germany. It was not immediately clear if the full division would go to Kuwait.
The redirected cargo ships are to begin arriving off the coast of Kuwait about March 30, one official said. All the ships would arrive by about April 10.
From Kuwait they could move into Iraq to serve as reinforcements if the ground war lasts more than several weeks, or as occupation forces after the Iraqi government's collapse.
Meanwhile, it appeared Saturday that one of Saddam Hussein's chief enforcers, Ali Hassan al-Majid al-Tikriti, was in command of the Iraqi military and security forces in a large portion of southeastern Iraq. Ali Hassan is known to his enemies as "Chemical Ali" for leading a campaign against rebellious Kurds in the 1980s that used chemical weapons to kill thousands.
The administration has said it wants to try Ali Hassan for war crimes or crimes against humanity.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)