Bush demands site inspections

KABUL, Afghanistan – U.S. Marine gunships launched their first strike, some Taliban troops fled their last base and President Bush signaled Monday that his anti-terror campaign soon could turn to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.

The president said Hussein, defeated but not deposed during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, must allow the United Nations to inspect sites that could produce chemical or nuclear weapons.

What would happen if Hussein refused? “He’ll find out,” Bush said.

In Afghanistan, more than 500 Marines secured “a forward base of operations” at an airfield near the southern city of Kandahar, the Taliban’s last stronghold. The apparent vanguard of a larger U.S. combat force, they called their campaign Operation Swift Freedom, and the operation swiftly flew into action:

U.S. Cobra helicopter gunships attacked an armored column Monday night and destroyed many of the 15 tanks and other vehicles, U.S. officers said. There was no immediate word about casualties.

Military spokesmen refused to confirm that the convoy belonged to the Taliban or that it was heading toward the Marines’ new base. But the action flared near there, and near Kandahar.

The other stubborn pocket of resistance – the northern city of Kunduz – fell completely into the hands of the opposition northern alliance Monday. In the streets of Kunduz, the liberators found Taliban bodies – and joyous residents offering warm handshakes and hot tea.

Though dramatic progress is being reported nearly daily, President Bush reminded Americans that this was only the first phase of the war against terrorists. Many goals still need to be achieved, he said, including the capture or elimination of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar and their followers.

“We’re smoking them out, they’re running and now we’re going to bring them to justice,” Bush said in Washington.

The president also warned that ground operations carry heightened risk and “America must be prepared for loss of life. I believe the American people understand that we’ve got a mighty struggle on our hands and that there will be sacrifice.”

The Pentagon reported that five U.S. military personnel suffered serious wounds Monday when a U.S. bomb or rocket struck close to their position near Mazar-e-Sharif in the north. An American, possibly a contract CIA employee, was believed killed or wounded Sunday in the same area.

“Obviously, no president or commander in chief hopes anybody loses life in the theater (of war),” Bush said. “But it’s going to happen.”

Back in Afghanistan, ethnic Pashtun opposition forces advanced within six miles of Kandahar, and witnesses reported that 400 trucks loaded with Taliban fighters left the city of 200,000 people. The convoy was headed east to the Maruf mountains under the command of Mullah Usmani, the Taliban’s No. 2 leader, the witnesses said.

Meanwhile, opposition fighters loyal to former Kandahar governor Gul Agha Shirzai claimed to have seized the city’s main airport.

And the forces of Ismael Khan, the warlord who captured Herat in northwest Afghanistan, moved into Delaram, about 120 miles from Kandahar. “We are organized and preparing soldiers and ammunition in order to have a huge offensive on Kandahar,” Khan said.

Taliban officials conceded that their foes control part of a strategic highway connecting Kandahar to Pakistan, and that negotiations were under way for a Taliban withdrawal from the border post of Spinboldak.

The Taliban “know it’s finished,” said Ahmed Karzai, brother of a senior Pashtun leader who controls most of central Oruzgan province. “They know Mullah Omar’s dreams are over.”