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April 8, 2003

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Coalition's Confidence Grows in Iraq
Coalition's Confidence Grows As Troops Take Solid Positions in Iraqi Capital

The Associated Press

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U.S. forces set up a base in central Baghdad and a warplane dropped bunker-busting bombs aimed at President Saddam Hussein and his two sons. As the coalition's confidence grew, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair looked beyond the war, declaring that Iraq would soon be liberated.

Iraqi forces staged a counterattack in the capital shortly after dawn Tuesday, sending fighters to overrun U.S. soldiers holding a strategic intersection leading to a bridge over the Tigris River. U.S. troops strafed the Iraqis from planes overhead and with mortar and artillery fire. At least 50 Iraqi fighters were killed and two U.S. soldiers were wounded, one seriously, by rooftop snipers.

In a potentially significant loss for the Iraqis, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force moved to capture Rasheed Airport in the southeast corner of Baghdad, said Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks of U.S. Central Command. On the way, the Marines fought and defeated heavily armed Iraqi forces in tanks and armored personnel carriers, before moving on to the military airfield.

In the midst of Monday's assault on Baghdad, a lone B-1B bomber carried out a massive strike on what the coalition described as a "leadership target" in the upscale al-Mansour neighborhood where senior Iraqi officials, possibly including Saddam and his two sons, were believed to be meeting. U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said American intelligence learned of the high-level meeting Monday morning.

It was not clear who was killed; the strike left a smoking crater of dirt and concrete 60 feet deep and destroyed three nearby houses. Iraqi rescue workers pulled three bodies from the rubble an elderly man, a young woman and a little boy but said the toll could be as high as 14. There were no unusual security measures; a reporter was able to examine the site, talk with neighbors and watch the search without interference.

Brooks said that although the site is still in Iraqi hands, coalition forces would likely visit it soon. He added that it would take some time and perhaps detailed forensic work to establish who was killed.

U.S. troops in Baghdad have no plans to pull back, Army Col. David Perkins said Tuesday. They now control most of the west bank of the Tigris, which divides the city, and they plan to join up with U.S. forces at the international airport, farther west. The Marines are advancing from the east.

"We survived the first night, and that's usually the most difficult one," said Perkins, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade.

The soldiers hunkered down in the sprawling, blue-and-gold-domed New Presidential Palace, where Saddam once slept, and patrolled neighborhoods in the city's center. At least a dozen Iraqis were being held in a hastily erected holding pen on the grounds.

As American and British forces advanced, their political leaders met in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It was the third summit for Bush and Blair in three weeks. At a press conference, the leaders said they were committed to rebuilding the country.

"This work, when the war is finished, will not be easy, but we're going to see it through. A free Iraq will be ruled by laws, not by a dictator," Bush said. "A free Iraq will be peaceful, and not a friend to terrorists or a menace to its neighbors. A free Iraq will give up all its weapons of mass destruction. A free Iraq will set itself on the path to democracy."

A key component of the talks was U.N. resolutions that would define what role the international body would play in reconstruction and governing postwar Iraq. Both leaders sought to rebuff comments that U.S.-led forces were planning to occupy Iraq.

"This was indeed a war of liberation and not conquest," Blair said. "Our enemy in this conflict has always been Saddam and his regime, not the Iraqi people."

As airstrikes continued Tuesday, Arab satellite network Al-Jazeera reported its office was bombed, killing one staffer. While the network's cameras rolled, a second bomb fell in the same neighborhood on the Tigris, where a number of TV channels have offices. Abu Dhabi TV said its office had also been hit.

Later, the Palestine Hotel, home base for many journalists, was struck by U.S. tank fire. Two television cameraman for Reuters news agency and Spanish network Telecinco were killed, and at least three other journalists were injured.

Perkins said the military regrets what happened but blames the regime for militarizing civilian areas.

Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf was speaking to reporters outside the hotel when it was hit. He dismissed a question on whether Iraq would surrender.

"The capital, especially the commandos, are getting ready to wipe them out," he said. "All is under control."

Marines working to secure the southeastern part of the city came under sporadic fire. The 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines seized a prison overnight where they found U.S. army uniforms and chemical weapons suits, possibly from captured U.S. soldiers. Other Marines were sent to guard a power plant Tuesday.

On the west side of the city, soldiers with the Army's 101st Airborne Division cleared a badly damaged Republican Guard headquarters north of the international airport, where they had been taking sniper fire in recent days. At least two Iraqis were killed. There are also plans to explore an extensive network of tunnels under the airport, said 1st Brigade Col. Will Grimsley. The army suspects tunnels from nearby palaces may lead to the city.

"This will go on for weeks," Grimsley said.

Defense officials said samples of a suspicious material found in Iraq are being tested for the presence of chemical weapons. Soldiers with the Army's 101st Airborne Division found the substance in metal drums in a compound near the city of Hindiyah, about 85 miles south of Baghdad. It was possible the substance was a pesticide, since it was found at an agricultural site, a local commander said.

If the discovery is confirmed, it would be the first chemical weapons find of the war. Finding and eliminating Saddam Hussein's chemical and biological weapons was stated as a goal of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and finding such weapons of mass destruction could mute international criticism of the war.

At the United Nations, a group of 22 Arab countries decided late Monday to push for a General Assembly resolution calling for a cease-fire in Iraq. They are certain to face U.S. opposition.

Meanwhile, a new cassette tape purported to be from Osama bin Laden called on Muslims to rise up against Arab governments that support the attack on Iraq, and urged suicide attacks. The tape was obtained by The Associated Press in Pakistan from an Algerian national, who said he had slipped across the border from Afghanistan, where the tape was recorded.

There was no way to independently confirm that the voice on the tape was that of bin Laden, and no clear indication of when the recording was made.

photo credit and caption:
Lance Cpl. Eric Garrett, left, of Tulsa, Okla. and Pfc. Kurt Gellert of Atlantic City, who are combat engineers attached to 3rd Batt., 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division, prepare to fire after a military compound that U.S. Marines had recently taken in southeast Baghdad came under a counter attack on Tuesday, April 8, 2003. (AP Photo/Laura Rauch)

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

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