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US, UK gear up for battle of Baghdad

Forces launched fierce air strikes just south of the city in a bid to soften up frontlines for their tanks.

india Updated: Mar 26, 2003 03:12 IST

US and British forces were gearing up on Tuesday for the battle for Baghdad launching fierce air strikes just south of the city in a bid to soften up frontlines for hundreds of tanks pushing across the desert.

On the sixth day of the US-led war to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the allied forces reported gains in the south, seizing the key, but small, port of Umm Qasr on the border with Kuwait and crossing the Euphrates river at the town of Nasiriyah to press northwards.

In a multi-pronged offensive, the US Army's Third Infantry Division was closing in on Baghdad, field reports said. The 101st Airborne Division was moving up from the southwest.

But their advance through the desert could be slowed by howling winds and swirling sand, which elsewhere in southern Iraq have grounded helicopters and brought tanks and amphibious vehicles to a standstill.

The unexpectedly tough resistance met in the desert towns which US war planners had thought would be a walkover for US troops, has raised fears for what the coalition forces could meet in Baghdad.

US troops backed by Apache helicopter gunships were primed for an all-out assault on Iraq's elite Republican Guard defending the capital, and intense bombardments were heard Tuesday afternoon, appearing to strike its southern suburbs.

US officers said about 30 to 40 Apaches, the US military's most fearsome attack helicopter, had already made initial runs against the Republican Guard as the prelude to what could be an epic tank battle.

'TOUGHEST FIGHT AHEAD'

"The toughest fight is ahead of us," General Richard Myers, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told ABC television. "We know it will be a very tough battle.

"We also anticipate that (in) this next phase, as we get closer to Baghdad, that the resistance will get tougher," he said, adding the Republican Guard were "best trained, best equipped and reportedly the most loyal to the regime."

Casualty tolls remain unreliable, with the Iraqis saying 30 have been killed and more than 400 wounded in the bombings of Baghdad, while the American and British troops have sustained an undetermined number of losses.

But Meyers added Operation Iraqi Freedom was going pretty much to plan, even though Saddam has remained defiant and has predicted that Iraq would win the war.

Iraqi officials have hinted they could try to draw US and British forces into dangerous street battles risking high civilian and military casualties -- under the glare of the world's cameras with hundreds of "embedded" journalists riding pillion with the troops.

Already US and British officials have been surprised at the determined fight put up in both Umm Qasr and Nasiriyah.

It took the coalition troops six days to capture Umm Qasr, as small numbers of Iraqi soldiers using guerrilla tactics embarrassed the might and technology of the world's superpower and its military ally.

Overwhelming firepower and numbers eventually flushed out the final pockets of resistance.

"Umm Qasr is under total control," a senior British officer told AFP on Tuesday. "The clean-up operation is over."

In Nasiriyah it was the same picture, as a column of about 4,000 US marines ran the gauntlet of heavy Iraqi fire to cross the Euphrates River in the city located about a third of the way north from Kuwait to Baghdad.

OBSTACLE DUST STORM

As a howling dust storm cut visibility to 25 meters, about 500 marines and some 50 tanks and armored vehicles held the two kilometers (1.2 miles) of dangerous ground between the bridges.

"It was about as dangerous as it comes," said Commander Ken Kelly.

The battle of Nasiriyah was the first trial for the US-British forces of the nasty urban warfare which they had vowed to avoid.

More than 100 Iraqi bodies were left littering the road north from Nasiriyah after the six-day standoff and the odour of burnt flesh filled the air.

BLAIR HEADED FOR AMERICA

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, announcing he was to go to Washington on Wednesday for talks with US President George W Bush, said coalition forces were advancing towards Baghdad in a two-pronged assault.

"Our aim remains as has been stated -- to remove Saddam as the route to disarming Iraq of weapons of mass destruction -- so the progress towards Baghdad is of vital strategic importance."

He said he would also meet with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

$74 BILL FOR WAR

Bush was due to head to the Pentagon Tuesday to tout the "steady advance" of US-led forces and unveil a 74.7-billion-dollar emergency spending bill to cover war costs this year.

The bill will include some 63 billion dollars for fighting the war, as well as about eight billion dollars for rebuilding Iraq.

BASRA PRECARIOUS

The situation in Basra remained precarious Tuesday where the Britain's 7th Armoured Brigade or Desert Rats, which is spearheading the drive on the city, were encountering fierce resistance on the outskirts.

Arabic satellite channel Al-Jazeera reported Western warplanes dropped cluster bombs over Basra overnight amid intense ground fighting on its outskirts.

Umm Qasr and Basra are seen as vital to establishing a humanitarian corridor for non-governmental organisations to deliver aid to the rest of the country.

Desperately needed aid will arrive in Umm Qasr on Wednesday after British and US Navy minesweepers cleared a shipping channel, officers said.

But concern mounted for the 1.2 million residents in Basra, where power and water supplies have been cut for several days.

The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) warned that at least 100,000 children in Iraq's second city were at risk of disease after water supplies were cut following air strikes.

US Army General Tommy Franks told a press conference at his command headquarters in Qatar Monday that: "Humanitarian assistance ships are loaded and we'll begin to deliver needed humanitarian assistance -- food, water, medicine -- to Iraqis within the next few days."

Blair pledged to the Iraqi people that the US-led coalition will "this time" not let them down in following through on its quest to topple Saddam, adding his talks with Bush would focus on reconstruction.

"It is to discuss the humanitarian situation and the important and complex issues that have to be addressed for the post-Saddam era, that I intend to visit the US tomorrow," Blair said.

In other developments a second British soldier was reported killed in action overnight southwest of Basra. A journalist said the soldier had been fatally shot during attempts to calm rioting Iraqi civilians.

Two other British soldiers have been missing since Sunday when their convoy came under fire, while 14 perished in two helicopter accidents and two airmen were killed when their Tornado bomber was hit by a US missile.

Anger at the war meanwhile has refused to die down, as hundreds of thousands of demonstrators again took to the streets of West Asia's capitals to protest.

First Published: Mar 25, 2003 01:50 IST