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March 31, 2003

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Battle Rages 50 Miles from Baghdad
U.S.-Led Troops Battle Saddam's Republican Guard Units 50 Miles South of Baghdad

The Associated Press

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March 31

American forces battled Iraqi defenders in fierce street fighting 50 miles south of Baghdad on Monday, pointing toward a drive on the capital. Army guards shot seven Iraqi women and children to death when their van refused orders to stop at a checkpoint, officials said.

U.S. troops and tanks encountered rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire in a dawn raid against Republican Guard defenders of Hindiyah, a key city astride the Euphrates River. Other units fought to isolate Najaf to the south and prevent attacks on U.S. supply lines.

"There are maneuvers going (on) to try to destroy those divisions that stand in our way" of Baghdad, Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said at the Pentagon. He added that more than 3,000 precision-guided bombs have been dropped on Iraq in the past few days, out of 8,000 in the entire war.

In the northern part of Iraq, commanders said an assault on a compound controlled by an Islamic Iraqi group turned up lists of names of suspected militants living in the United states.

And heavy bombing was reported during the day, from areas near the northern oil fields to downtown Baghdad to Republican Guard defensive positions south of the city. Bombing south of the capital, probably against Republican Guard positions, resumed at daylight Tuesday.

On the 13th day of Operation Iraqi Freedom, British officials claimed that 8,000 Iraqis have been taken prisoner so far.

But a defiant Iraqi foreign minister said invading forces face the choice between death or surrender. "Every day that passes the United States and Britain are sinking deeper in the mud of defeat," said Naji Sabri.

Iraqi television aired footage of President Saddam Hussein and his sons Odai and Qusai, but there was no way of determining when the video was shot. Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on PBS that U.S. intelligence sources have been unable to confirm that Saddam survived the March 19 strike on a bunker where he was believed to be staying but said, "That doesn't mean he's dead."

For his part, President Bush warned that Saddam "may try to bring terror to our shores." The United States is acting to prevent such threats, he said as he issued his latest forecast of victory. "Day by day we are moving closer to Baghdad. Day by day we are moving closer to victory," Bush said during a trip to Philadelphia.

Officials said the civilians were killed when Army guards opened fire at a checkpoint near Najaf, the same general area where four soldiers from the same unit were killed in a weekend car bombing. This time, officials said Army guards fired warning shots at the vehicle carrying 13 people, then fired into its engine, but neither action stopped the van. Two other civilians were injured and four unharmed in the incident, which the military is investigating.

"In light of recent terrorist attacks by the Iraqi regime, the soldiers exercised considerable restraint to avoid the unnecessary loss of life," said a statement from U.S. Central Command.

The official casualty count for Americans stood at 44 dead, seven captured and 16 missing. The British death toll rose to 26 with the death of a soldier Monday in southern Iraq.

Iraqi officials have given no estimate of military casualties but have said at least 425 civilians have been killed and thousands wounded.

Some defecting Iraqis described harrowing conditions, and not only from American air bombardments.

One, who agreed to talk on condition his name not be used, said agents of the ruling Baath party attempted to shoot deserters. "But we decided it was either die from an American bomb or be killed by our own people," he said in the Kurdish town of Kalak in northern Iraq.

American and British warplanes continued to bomb at will. Thunderous explosions rocked the Baghdad skyline after dark, and smoke billowed from the Old Palace presidential compound. Iraqi state-run television was briefly bombed off the air, and nearly all telephone service was knocked out in the capital.

Officials in Biyare, in northern Iraq, said the assault on a compound controlled by Ansar al-Islam turned up documents, computer discs and other material belonging to Arab fighters from around the Middle East. The administration has longed claimed that the Iraqi-based group and al-Qaida are connected. But there was no immediate indication of evidence that tied Ansar to Saddam.

McChrystal said a week of intensive bombing has caused a "very significant weakening of the forces" arrayed to protect Baghdad, and added that some Republican Guard units are evidently being repositioned to reinforce those most severely degraded.

Apart from the 8,000 precision-guided bombs, he said 700 Tomahawk land attack missiles have been fired at Iraqi targets since the war began.

Much of the day's fighting occurred south of Baghdad, where American forces are gathering strength for the push toward the capital.

U.S. troops staged a raid as the sun rose on Hindiyah, a city of 80,000. Iraqis used small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades to try to prevent a column of tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles from taking control of a bridge over the Euphrates.

"This must have been important to him to send down a Republican Guard brigade," said Col. David Perkins, whose troops were facing Iraqis wearing the distinctive patches of Saddam's elite units.

Inside the city, U.S. soldiers found a small cache of weapons. But the haul was bigger at the local Baath party headquarters.

There, the Americans found tons of ammunition and hundreds of weapons, including several boxes of American grenades marked "Property of the Ministry of Defence of Jordan."

Maps inside the building showed Iraqi military positions and the expected route of the U.S. attack.

The 1st and 2nd brigades of the 101st Airborne Division battled to isolate Najaf, a Shiite holy city. Iraqi forces attacked with mortar and small arms fire, and Maj. Carl Purvis, an Army spokesman, said the Army forces were prepared for house-to-house combat.

"They are trained and poised to do that if necessary," he said.

In Washington, the State Department said Secretary of State Colin Powell will travel to Turkey and Belgium on Tuesday for talks on the war as well as postwar reconstruction of Iraq.

photo credit and caption:
U.S. Army soldiers from A Company 3rd Battalion 7th Infantry Regiment approach an injured woman who was caught in the crossfire with Iraqi forces over the Euphrates River when the U.S. Army siezed a bridge in Al Hindiyah, Iraq Monday, March 31, 2003. The Army's Task Force 4-64, part of the 3rd Infantry Division, took the strategic bridge in its move north towards Baghdad. The woman, who was near a dead civilian man, was bleeding and apparently shot in the buttock. (AP Photo/John Moore)

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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