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Fresh Blasts in Baghdad, Tank Battle Near Basra


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By Samia Nakhoul

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Half a dozen explosions rocked Baghdad early on Saturday as the city awoke after a fearsome night blitz unleashed by the United States and Britain.

"The earth is literally shaking," Reuters correspondent Khaled Oweis said on Friday night as he watched the assault.

Iraq's information minister said the raids had wounded more than 200 civilians and he denied that U.S. and British forces had achieved any successes in their land invasion.

U.S. and British forces have met sporadic resistance as they punch into Iraq in a war to topple President Saddam Hussein.

U.S. Marines said on Saturday their tanks were battling Iraqi forces defending the big southern city of Basra.

"We are attacking Iraqi forces, all of which are west of Basra," Captain Andrew Bergen told reporters in the area. "I would certainly say it's a major battle."

A British military spokesman said U.S.-led forces were hoping to negotiate Basra's surrender.

Three explosions boomed from the outskirts of Baghdad, where daylight brought no respite to shocked residents. Another large blast had detonated on the edge of the city earlier. Oweis said two missiles slammed into Saddam's main palace compound in Baghdad at dawn, sending up a cloud of pulverized concrete from what appeared to have been an underground bunker.

The Iraqi leader has deployed his best troops, including elite Republican Guard units, in Baghdad, where he may try to draw the invaders into street fighting that would neutralize some of their overwhelming technological advantages.

It was the first time since the war began on Thursday that Baghdad had been targeted in daytime. Ambulances raced through the streets and air raid sirens wailed. Fires were still smoldering from Friday's hail of bombs and missiles.


The devastating bombardment triggered giant fireballs, deafening explosions and mushroom clouds, reddening the night sky over Baghdad, in a major intensification of the war.

U.S. planes also launched night raids on the northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk.

One U.S. armored column battled for hours overnight for control of an airfield near the city of Nassiriya, on the Euphrates river, Reuters correspondent Andrew Gray reported.

Another U.S. column, driving north across the desert west of the Euphrates, came under Iraqi fire on Saturday and paused to retaliate with artillery, a CNN correspondent said.

Two British naval helicopters collided over the Gulf and a British spokesman said all seven crewmen had been killed.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Friday U.S. forces had taken Umm Qasr, Iraq's only deep-water port, but Marines still faced pocked of resistance there the next day.

There was still a "little bit" of resistance around the old port, Colonel Thomas Waldhauser, commanding the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, told reporters in Umm Qasr.

The Marines said U.S. and British troops had taken 400 to 450 Iraqi prisoners in fighting around the strategic port and the nearby Faw peninsula, which controls access from the Gulf.

U.S. officials also said American troops had seized two airfields in the Iraqi desert 140 and 180 miles west of the capital, part of a move to encircle Baghdad.

Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf told reporters in Baghdad these claims were "illusions and lies."

U.S. officials said the commander of the 51st division in Iraq's regular army and his deputy had surrendered on Friday to Marines in southern Iraq. An Iraqi spokesman denied this.

British forces had said that Basra, scene of an anti-Saddam uprising after the 1991 Gulf War, might fall on Friday night. Reuters correspondent Matthew Green, with a U.S. Marine unit about 25 miles inside Iraq on the main road to Basra, reported U.S. artillery fire pounding unidentified targets.

He saw at least 20 British tanks advancing north in single file. Two Marine Cobra attack helicopters circled overhead.

By Saturday morning, U.S. armored columns had pushed up to 125 miles north across the desert toward Baghdad in a pincer movement, Reuters journalists with U.S. forces said.

Gray, traveling with elements of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division, said fighting had raged for several hours for control of an airfield near Nassiriya.

Nassiriya, home to a quarter of a million people, straddles the Euphrates river -- which the invaders must cross to reach Baghdad, some 235 miles to the northwest. The main Baghdad-Basra highway crosses the river just west of Nassiriya.

Iraq said Saddam had survived air strikes on Thursday that aimed to kill him, but U.S. and British officials said they did not know if the Iraqi leader was dead or alive.

"We don't know that. We are still evaluating and analyzing," said British Defense Chief of Staff Michael Boyce.

Rumsfeld said the Iraqi leadership was in disarray, its grip was crumbling and the scale of the assault on Baghdad was intended to show Iraqis that Saddam's rule was "history."

Iraqi television quoted what it said was a statement from the Iraqi president on Saturday pledging to respect the rights of any prisoners of war captured by his forces.

The state Iraqi News Agency said on Friday that Saddam had offered financial rewards to any Iraqi who shot down a U.S. or British aircraft, or killed or captured a pilot or soldier.

U.S. warships launched some 320 Tomahawk missiles at targets around Baghdad on Friday alone, said the commander of the USS Kitty Hawk battle group, Rear Admiral Matthew Moffit.

"The intention is to convince the (Iraqi) regime that it's time to leave and if they don't, we're going to take them out," he told reporters aboard the American aircraft carrier.

Iraqi state television headquarters was hit but it remained on air, broadcasting pictures of Saddam with his son Qusay.


Risking U.S. anger and possible clashes with Iraqi Kurdish forces, Turkey sent 1,500 commandos into northern Iraq overnight to pave the way for bigger troop deployments later, a Turkish military source said. But Kurdish forces denied any incursion.

The reported Turkish move came after Ankara finally opened its airspace to U.S. warplanes.

"Turkish units have begun crossing into northern Iraq to take security measures," said a Turkish military source. "Further crossings will take place at various intervals."

Turkey says it needs troops in northern Iraq to prevent refugees from flooding across its border, but the United States, aware that its Iraqi Kurdish allies are deeply suspicious of Turkish intentions, had asked its NATO ally not to intervene.

Iran said two more rockets fired by U.S. jets had fallen in southwest Iran, near the border with Iraq. On Friday, officials and witnesses said a rocket had hit an oil refinery depot in Abadan, 30 miles east of Basra, wounding two people.

The United States and Britain say they went to war to deprive Iraq of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons that could one day become a threat. Iraq denies having such weapons.

"We're making progress," President Bush said on Friday. "We will stay on task until we've achieved our objective, which is to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and free the Iraqi people."

photo credit and caption:
Iraqi civilians scream for help as they are caught in the crossfire while marines from the U.S. Marine Expeditionary Unit Fox Company 'Raiders' push into southern Iraq to take control of the main port of Umm Qasr on March 21, 2003. U.S. and British ground forces launched assaults into Iraq in a bid to topple Saddam Hussein. Photo by Desmond Boylan/Reuters

Copyright 2003 Reuters News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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