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Iraq deploys more guards near Baghdad

Iraq moved reinforcements to defend Baghdad as US troops stood poised at the capital's doorstep after a northward blitz smashed two divisions of the elite Republican Guard.

india Updated: Apr 03, 2003 11:35 IST

Iraq moved reinforcements to defend Baghdad on Thursday as US troops stood poised at the capital's doorstep after a northward blitz smashed two divisions of the elite Republican Guard.

As the US-led war to topple Iraqi president Saddam Hussein moved into its third week, US military sources said Iraq was deploying more Republican Guards south of the capital in a bid to defend the city's airport and block the US advance.

The city and its outskirts were heavily bombed overnight.

US forces surged past Kerbala and Kut towns on Wednesday and captured key bridges over the Euphrates and Tigris rivers as they prepared the way for an assault on Saddam's stronghold.

The Iraqi leader vowed his troops would repel the invading army - now just 30 km (20 miles) from Baghdad.

"They will not let them reach Baghdad," Saddam said in a letter to his niece, read on state television on Wednesday.

"They will cripple them until they return to their countries defeated, leaving our country for its people."

US officials said Iraq had shot down a Black Hawk helicopter near the city of Kerbala, while US Central Command reported a US F/A-18 Hornet fighter-bomber was also down.

Overnight, US spy planes spotted Iraqi Republican Guard units moving south from the capital to counter the US attack, US military sources said.

US forces sent rockets streaking toward the Iraqi positions, and American officials said it was unclear how many Iraqi soldiers were on the move.

Major General Stanley McChrystal, vice director for operations for the US military's Joint Staff, said the dramatic US advance on Wednesday had effectively destroyed two of the six Republican Guard divisions guarding Baghdad.

Iraq denied this, saying morale was high.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned Iraqi moves to bolster city defences meant tough fights lay ahead.

"Our forces have been pressuring them on the ground and from the air," he told reporters.

"My guess is, however, that the Republican Guard that pretty much ringed Baghdad... will probably represent some difficult days ahead and dangerous days... in terms of fighting.

The US advance sent stocks higher in Asia on Thursday while oil and gold prices weakened as investors bet the war in Iraq could end quickly. Fund managers expect the war to last another six weeks, according to a Reuters poll.

But many analysts sounded a note of caution and said markets remained susceptible to any surprises in a war which many analysts said appeared to be entering its most dangerous phase.

Black Hawk down

A US Black Hawk helicopter has been shot down near Kerbala by small-arms fire, killing seven and wounding four on board, a US official said on Wednesday.

But the armed forces' Central Command said initial reports put the number of people on board at six.

The US military also confirmed on Thursday that an F/A-18 Hornet single-seat aircraft went down in Iraq overnight, and said the incident was being investigated.

US planes pounded targets around Baghdad on Thursday, waging a relentless campaign of air strikes on the city of five million people.

"It was one of the worst nights of bombing so far in Baghdad and the outskirts. There was the sound of warplanes all night," said Reuters correspondent Nadim Ladki.

The aerial bombardment of Baghdad eased after daybreak.

US war headquarters in Qatar said planes dropped almost 40 "smart bombs" overnight on just one military storage facility in the Karkh district of Baghdad.

The defenders of Baghdad have been preparing for urban warfare. Pick-up trucks equipped with machineguns and anti-aircraft guns are dotted across the city, while militia and ruling Baath Party members have taken up defensive positions.

US forces would like to avoid street fighting in Baghdad, which might take a heavy toll in military and civilian casualties. But planners believe this prospect is increasingly likely as Saddam prepares to stage his last stand in the city.

The United States lists 53 dead and 11 missing since the war began. Britain says it has suffered 27 dead. Official figures usually lag behind battlefield casualties.

Iraq has not provided figures for military deaths, but estimates at least 677 civilians have been killed and 5,062 injured since war began on March 20.

McChrystal said the United States had fired 700 cruise missiles, which cost over $1 million each, and more than 10,000 precision-guided bombs since the war began.

In the north, US planes bombed Iraqi troops, forcing them to retreat in several areas in such a hurry that they abandoned valuable supplies of ammunition and injectors containing the nerve gas antidote atropine, a Reuters witness said.

"Dagger at the heart"

"The dagger is clearly pointed at the heart of the Baghdad regime," US Brigadier General Vincent Brooks said of the advance on the capital.

He said some US troops had gone across a notional "red line" - into the area where the military believes Iraqi forces might be most likely to launch a poison-gas attack.

"If it's used, we'll be prepared," Brooks said.

President George W. Bush launched the war two weeks ago to oust Saddam and destroy his alleged weapons of mass destruction. Iraq denied having such weapons and so far none have been found.

Arabic-language al-Jazeera satellite television said it was halting the work of its journalists in Iraq after officials barred two of its correspondents from reporting from Baghdad.

The Iraqi government gave no reason for its action against the Qatar-based station, which has been criticised by the United States and Britain for helping to inflame Arab opposition to the war by broadcasting distressing images of civilian casualties.

In Ankara, US Secretary of State Colin Powell said he had agreed with Turkey on measures to ship supplies through Turkish territory to US forces fighting in northern Iraq.

US soldier Jessica Lynch, held as a prisoner of war by Iraq for over a week until US Special Forces freed her, arrived in Germany for treatment for broken bones at an American military hospital.

First Published: Apr 03, 2003 11:35 IST