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March 24, 2003

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Heavy Fighting Slows Drive to Baghdad
American-Led Forces Advance Within 50 Miles of Baghdad, but Meet Heavy Resistance on the Way

The Associated Press

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American-led forces advanced to within 50 miles of Baghdad on Monday, while warplanes and attack helicopters targeted Republican Guard units guarding the capital. An Army helicopter went down, and Iraq claimed capture of two pilots.

Five days into the war to topple Saddam Hussein's regime, strong Iraqi resistance kept British and American troops from entering the southern city of Basra.

"Be patient, brothers, because God's victory will be ours soon," Saddam exhorted his country in a television appearance Monday.

Despite Saddam's defiant pose, a military barracks in the northern part of the country was bombed, and Baghdad fell under renewed air attack, as well. Iraqis set up mortar positions south of the city and piled sandbags around government buildings and other strategic locations, in evident anticipation of a battle to come.

Military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said heavy emphasis was given in the day's bombing runs to the Republican Guard units that defend Baghdad.

At the Pentagon, Major Gen. Stanley McChrystal said U.S. helicopters have begun attacking Saddam's Republican Guard forces arrayed around Baghdad. Asked about ground forces, McChrystal said, "We have not gotten into direct firefights with Republican Guard forces."

But in the world's first war to be covered live on television, the news and images of American and British setbacks competed with pictures of battlefield successes.

Iraqi television showed pictures of one American helicopter in a grassy field, men in Arab headdresses brandishing automatic rifles as they did a victory dance around the aircraft. Hours later, Iraqi television showed two men it said made up the crew.

"We have a two-man crew missing," confirmed Gen. Tommy Franks, the U.S. war commander. But he denied Iraqi reports that the craft had been shot down by farmers, and that two choppers had been lost.

Franks told reporters that 3,000 Iraqi prisoners had been taken. But he and other U.S. officials were more concerned with the fate of a handful of American POWs whose convoy was ambushed in the Iraqi desert over the weekend.

A U.S. military transport arrived in Germany, bearing some of the wounded from a weekend attack on the 101st Airborne Division. An American GI is in custody in the incident.

And in London, the Ministry of Defense announced the first British combat death, a soldier who fell in fighting near Az Zubayr in southern Iraq, near the city of Basra.

Two other British troops were missing after their convoy was hit by continuing resistance in southern Iraq.

It was a fresh reminder that even in areas where American and British forces thought they had control, resistance continued to pop up.

"This is not a video game where everything is clear and neat and tidy," said British spokesman Lt. Col. Ronnie McCourt. "Some enemy who feel that they want to carry on fighting will inevitably do so."

Basra, Iraq's second largest city, provided evidence of that, as Iraqis battled British forces on the outskirts of town. Commanders held off storming the city, hoping its Iraqi defenders would give up, but they have held firm.

In Washington, President Bush invited congressional leaders to the White House. His administration prepared a formal request for as much as $80 billion to fight the war, provide humanitarian aid to Iraq and protect the United States from further terrorist attacks.

Bush also talked with Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone. Spokesman Ari Fleischer said the president was "very concerned that there are reports of ongoing cooperation to Iraqi military forces being provided by a Russian company that produces GPS jamming equipment."

The Army's 3rd Infantry Division was responsible for the deepest known penetration in force of the Iraqi interior, a two-day dash that brought it toward Karbala, about 50 miles south of Baghdad.

Some Iraqis waved or gave a thumbs-up as the convoy passed, while others stood stoically.

The advance of long columns of thousands of vehicles was aided by heavy air protection that wiped out a column of Iraqi armor at one point and sent some of Saddam's outer defenses withdrawing toward the capital. The convoy passed bombed anti-aircraft guns, empty foxholes and berms dug for tanks that had been abandoned.

But the advance was stalled for a time, at least, by the weather, an afternoon sandstorm that blew out of the desert.

The bombing in the north was carried out against a military barracks close to the line that separates Iraqi-held territory from the Kurdish-held region.

"People are evacuating, but not because of the bombing. They are afraid Saddam will respond with chemical weapons," said Ahmad Qafoor, a school teacher.

There was no evidence of that as yet.

But military commanders said American forces were still evaluating a plant captured by U.S. troops, and pursuing leads from captured Iraqis and documents in their search for weapons of mass destruction.

Saddam wore a military uniform in Monday's televised appearance, looking more composed than he did last week during his first words to the country since the war began.

In Washington, a senior U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity said U.S. intelligence had determined Saddam's speech was recorded. However, it is unclear when it was taped. American officials repeatedly have said they believe Saddam may have been killed or injured in a missile strike against a leadership compound the United States launched last Wednesday night.

Saddam's rhetoric was as fierce as always. "These are your days, you Iraqis are in line with what God has ordered you to do, to cut their throats and even their fingers," he said, urging his country to repel American and British forces.

At the United Nations, Secretary General Kofi Annan warned of a humanitarian crisis in Basra and said "urgent measures" were needed to restore electricity and water supplies.

photo credit and caption:
U.S. Army infantrymen discuss their next mission while in the desert near Karbalah, Iraq Monday, March 24, 2003. The soldiers are with Company A 3rd Battalion 7th Infantry Regiment and is part of the 3rd Infantry Division advancing further into Iraq. (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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