Hundreds killed in Baghdad, air raids on
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Hundreds killed in Baghdad, air raids on

Baghdad and its outskirts were pounded by air strikes on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, targeting elite Republican Guard strongholds.

india Updated: Mar 26, 2003 15:08 IST

Baghdad and its outskirts were pounded by air strikes on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, targeting elite Republican Guard strongholds blocking the US-British advance on the capital and television stations.

The air raids came after US armoured forces clashed with foot soldiers in sand storms south of Baghdad, reportedly killing up to 300 out-gunned Iraqis in the biggest battle so far of the war to topple the regime of President Saddam Hussein.

About a dozen explosions shook Baghdad and its suburbs as dawn broke over the city, the agency said, one of them raising a huge plume of smoke near the ministry of information and the state television studios.

The Baghdad area also took a fearsome battering as night fell.

Some of the strikes were apparently aimed at Iraqi state television in the city, which has broadcast footage of US prisoners of war and vows from the regime that Saddam is still in control.

The intense bombardments also appeared to target the southern suburbs, where elite Republican Guard units protect the approach to Saddam's seat of power.

The agency correspondents heard allied warplanes roaring at high altitude over Baghdad, but the aircraft were invisible above the dark clouds emanating from fuel trenches ignited by the Iraqi authorities on Saturday.

A US Navy spokesman aboard the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier said a barrage of 40 Tomahawk cruise missiles was launched at the city and surrounding areas from ships in the Gulf and the Red Sea.

Air strikes have already left about 30 civilians dead and more than 400 wounded in and around Baghdad, according to Iraqi figures.

In the biggest land battle so far of the campaign, a US defence official said between 150 and 300 Iraqis were reported killed east of Najaf yesterday, about 200 km south of Baghdad, in the engagement with a "dismounted force" of Iraqis.

The official said the fight erupted after an element of the US 7th Cavalry Regiment came under rocket propelled grenade fire that disabled a tank and damaged two other vehicles.

There were no US casualties, the official said, adding it was not clear whether the force was regular Iraqi army or irregular such as the Saddam Fedayeen. The US account could not be independently verified.

US-British troops pushing forward from the southern desert regions have had to battle blinding sandstorms and encountered fierce resistance on reaching cities. Reports said Saddam's elite troops have mainly retrenched into Baghdad and his northern hometown of Tikrit.

British forces reported an uprising against Saddam's regime in Iraq's second city of Basra yesterday, and said Iraqi troops fired on civilians.

However, Iraqi Information Minister Mohammad Said al-Sahhaf slammed the reports as "provocative lies". In Basra, the correspondent of Al-Jazeera, the Arab television network, also said he had seen no sign of a rebellion.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell said he had heard reports of an uprising but had no confirmation.

The allies reported gains in the south, saying they finally won total control of the key port of Umm Qasr on the Kuwaiti border and crossed the Euphrates River at Nasiriyah to press northwards toward the scene of the battle at Najaf.

Two British troops were killed and two severely wounded in a friendly fire incident between two of the British army's high-tech Challenger II tanks in fighting outside Basra, British officials said.

Twenty British troops have now been killed in war accidents and combat. There are about 16 American dead but several are missing and seven are believed held prisoner.

The battle for Baghdad appears to be nearing a critical phase, with US troops backed by Apache helicopter gunships primed for an all-out assault on the Republican Guard.

US officers said 30 to 40 Apaches, the US military's most fearsome attack helicopter, had made initial runs against Saddam's crack troops.

The US Third Infantry Division was closest to Baghdad, positioned near Kerbala, about 100km from the capital, field reports said, with the US 101st Airborne Division crawling up from the southwest and the Marines to the east.

But their advance through the desert was slowed by the strong winds and swirling sand.

A US Apache and a Black Hawk helicopter attached to the Third Infantry Division went missing in southern Iraq when visibility was cut to 100 metres, said a senior US officer.

US President George W Bush said the allies were "making good progress" and vowed Saddam's regime would be overthrown but US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned the war was "much closer to the beginning than the end."

"Our coalition is on a steady advance. We're making good progress," Bush said in a speech at the Pentagon in which he asked Congress for $74.7 billion to cover the costs of the war.

General Richard Myers, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, also insisted that "the toughest fight is ahead of us" and the resistance will get stronger as troops approach Baghdad.

A pilot aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier said a "terrorist Al-Qaeda camp" in northern Iraq was bombed by US warplanes early today.

US forces have carried out since the start of the war last Thursday several airstrikes in the north targeting two Islamic groups, mainly the Ansar al-Islam (Supporters of Islam).

Following the air raids on Baghdad last night, state television was off for around 45 minutes before resuming transmissions until the normal nighttime closedown.

The youth channel of Saddam's elder son Uday did not come back on after the strikes. Iraq TV sources said transmitters had been hit.

Meanwhile Iraqi satellite television monitored outside the country was disrupted, flashing incomplete images occasionally but mostly blank.

First Published: Mar 26, 2003 13:21 IST