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Iraq defiant as US troops move towards Baghdad

American soldiers on the road to Baghdad fought bloody street-to-street battles with Iraqi forces loyal to Saddam Hussein.

india Updated: Apr 02, 2003 13:19 IST

American soldiers on the road to Baghdad fought bloody street-to-street battles with Iraqi forces loyal to Saddam Hussein while coalition aircraft bombed southeastern Iraq to open the way for a possible new front in the crucial battle for Baghdad.

South of the capital, the US-led coalition pounded Iraq's Republican Guard with bombs and missiles in an effort to soften up Saddam's most loyal forces assigned to defend Baghdad. On the ground, US and British soldiers fought fierce battles small groups of Saddam loyalists.

Around Karbala, 80 kilometres (50 miles) from Baghdad, US army troops skirmished with Republican Guard forces early on Wednesday in the coalition's first major ground battle with Saddam's best-trained troops, US defence officials said. Near Diwaniyah, 130 kilometres (80 miles) southeast of Baghdad, Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 4th Regiment, cleared out Iraqi mortar nests, snipers and tanks along a line several kilometres (miles) wide. Lt. Col. B.P. McCoy said they killed at least 75 Iraqis and took 44 POWs.

Marines said Iraqis fought with grenade launchers, machine guns and small arms, trying to ambush the attackers in any way they could. "They were shooting from buildings, from dugout positions, from holes, from everything. They would jump out to shoot. They were behind buses - you name it they were there," said Cpl. Patrick Irish.

In the country's south, allied forces began delivering humanitarian aid to try to coax Iraqi civilians to abandon Saddam, and US and British officers said they were seeing more cooperation from civilians. Warplanes bombarded southern Baghdad and in southeastern Iraq, coalition aircraft bombed Iraqi forces at Kut along the Tigris River. A US Marine intelligence analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the bombardment was to clear the way for ground forces, which could open the way for an eastern front in the attack on Baghdad.

Huge explosions echoed across Baghdad early on Wednesday, and a plume of white smoke was seen rising from the southern end of the old palace grounds in the capital. More explosions rocked Baghdad in the half hour following the first blast at 3 a.m., including the old palace area. The palace is the ceremonial seat of government on the west bank of the Tigris, one rarely used openly by Saddam. In another development, US troops have rescued Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch, who had been held as a prisoner of war in Iraq since she and other members of her maintenance unit were ambushed March 20, the Defence Department announced Tuesday. Lynch, 19, was part of the 507th Maintenance Company, which was ambushed near Nasiriyah after making a wrong turn during early fighting in the invasion of Iraq.

Earlier Tuesday, Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf went on national television to shore up support for Saddam's regime. He read an address said to be from the Iraqi president calling for holy war against the invaders. "Jihad is a duty in confronting them," al-Sahhaf quoted Saddam as saying. "Those who are martyred will be rewarded in heaven. Seize the opportunity, my brothers." Saddam's failure to appear himself raised new questions by US officials about the Iraqi leaders whereabouts.

Since the war started, he has been shown on television several times - including delivering two speeches - but Americans have suggested his appearances could have been taped weeks or months ago. Al-Sahhaf read the statement as US forces were reported within 80 kilometres (50 miles) of Baghdad and B-52 bombers and cruise missiles bombarded Republican Guard positions north and south of Baghdad and around Karbala.

Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, speaking to reporters in Baghdad, gave a blunt reply to Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud's suggestion that Saddam should step down to save his country. "Go to hell," Ramadan said, and - addressing Saud directly - he added: "You are too much of a nothing to say a word addressed to the leader of Iraq." Ramadan also renewed warnings that invading US and British forces would be the targets of suicide bombers, saying more Arab volunteers were arriving in Iraq to carry out such attacks. "I tell them the number of volunteers in this battle of honour has exceeded 6,000, more than half of them martyrdom-seekers, time bombs... You will hear their news in a few days," he said.

Lights went on this week for the first time in months in Umm Qasr and water began flowing from a pipeline in neighbouring Kuwait as British and American troops tried to return normal life to the city and convince Iraqis they should cooperate with coalition forces. In Kuwait, the first 5,000 troops of the US Army's 4th Infantry Division have arrived, and the division's assistant commander, Brig. Gen. Stephen Speakes, said the unit's 30,000 soldiers could be on the ground in Iraq "in a matter of weeks."

The Texas-based division had been expected to invade Iraq from the north, but Turkey's decision not to allow coalition forces to enter from its territory scotched that plan. Some 30 ships laden the division's forces and equipment had to make the 10-day trip from the Mediterranean Sea through the Suez Canal to the Gulf. Warships in the Gulf have fired more than 700 Tomahawk missiles into Iraq since the war began. F/A-18 Hornet and F-14 Tomcat fighters dropped 500-pound (225-kilogram) and 1,000-pound (450-kilogram) laser-guided bombs Tuesday on an Iraqi intelligence complex in the southern city of Basra, said Lt. JG Nicole Kratzer, a spokeswoman for the carrier USS Kitty Hawk's air wing.

Iraqi officials have said at least 480 civilians have been killed, but have given no figure for deaths in the Iraqi military. British officials say 8,000 Iraqis have been taken prisoner. The official casualty count for Americans stands at 46 dead, seven captured and 16 missing. Twenty-seven British soldiers, including one Tuesday, have died.

First Published: Apr 02, 2003 10:25 IST