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Battle intensifies south of Baghdad

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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S. forces are battling Iraqi fighters south of Baghdad and pummelling the capital from the air in a marked intensification of the 12-day-old war to topple President Saddam Hussein.

A thunderous artillery barrage opened up on the city's southern outskirts as warplanes screamed low over the Iraqi capital, a Reuters correspondent in the centre said on Monday.

"The artillery fire is suddenly very intense. We can hear it coming from the south. It's unusual," said Samia Nakhoul. "There's a new air raid on. I've heard six very loud explosions in the city and the planes are screaming very low overhead."

At least one American soldier was killed in one of several firefights around towns and river crossings in the south.

The latest military operations indicated U.S. commanders were determined to take the fight to Iraqi militiamen harrying their advance, while hitting regular troops and Republican Guard units blocking routes to Baghdad.

Bombs and missiles shook the heart of the capital, knocking local television briefly off the air after America's top soldier vowed to "draw the noose tighter" around Baghdad.

But General Richard Myers, head of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, signalled there would be no early ground assault on Baghdad. "We'll be patient," he said in Washington.

A cruise missile hit the Information Ministry in Baghdad in the second night strike on the building in three days. State television broadcasts began four hours later than usual.

At daybreak, two blasts hit a presidential palace used by Saddam's son Qusay, who commands the elite Republican Guard.

Planes pounded the capital's southern outskirts in the morning, apparently aiming at Republican Guard defences.

U.S. forces may not try to storm Baghdad until they have disabled its defences from the air and secured long supply lines against attacks by Iraqi fighters in a string of southern towns.


American units battled Iraqi fighters on the Euphrates river near the site of ancient Babylon on Monday in what appeared to be the closest the land war has yet come to the capital.

On a front about 110 km (70 miles) south of Baghdad, U.S. forces said many Iraqis and at least one American were killed in a battle near Hilla. A separate fight erupted near a bridge over the Euphrates at Hindiya, just 80 km (50 miles) from Baghdad.

"There's still extremely heavy contact right now," said Captain Brad Loudon of the 2nd Battalion 70th Armoured Regiment near Imam Aiyub, where burned out vehicles littered the sides of the road after air strikes and clashes in recent days.

Troops used tanks, helicopters and artillery, and called in British and U.S. air strikes against the Iraqis, who hit back with tanks, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.

At Hindiya, Iraqi prisoners taken in fighting included an officer who said he was from the Nebuchadnezzar Division of the Republican Guard -- a claim that surprised U.S. commanders who said they believed this division to be based much further north.

Colonel John Peabody of the U.S. Third Infantry Division told Reuters correspondent Luke Baker near Kerbala, 10 km (seven miles) from Hindiya, that one American soldier had been lightly wounded and that the Iraqis had taken dozens of casualties.

Monday's death near Hilla raised the U.S. casualty toll in the war to at least 46 with another 17 missing.

Britain has lost 25 dead, one more than in the 1991 Gulf War. Only five have been killed in action, while 15 have died in accidents and five by "friendly fire".

Iraq has said nearly 600 Iraqi civilians have been killed and over 4,500 wounded. It has not listed military casualties.

Further south, U.S. Marines stormed a town north of the key city of Nassiriya and searched Nassiriya's southern outskirts street by street to eliminate Iraqi fighters.


Marines who had been heading north towards Kut and Baghdad after storming through Nassiriya under fire from Iraqi paramilitaries turned back south to raid the town of Shatra.

Reuters correspondent Sean Maguire, travelling with the Marines, said they were targeting Iraqi officials commanding lightly armed forces which have attacked U.S. supply convoys.

Among those sought in Shatra was Ali Hassan al-Majid, or "Chemical Ali", who is commanding the southern sector.

Majid, a feared cousin of Saddam, earned his nickname for overseeing the use of poison gas against Kurds in 1988.

Maguire said U.S. warplanes had bombed four targets in Shatra. "Tanks and armoured personnel carriers then moved in force to the edge of the town while Huey helicopter gunships raked the rubble-strewn target sites with heavy machinegun fire."

On the southern edge of Nassiriya itself, 375 km (235 miles) southeast of Baghdad, Reuters correspondent Adrian Croft watched Marines raid an abandoned military camp. They found weapons, gas masks and supplies of atropine, a nerve gas antidote.

"We are going in to go block by block and we are going to weed out all enemy personnel," said Captain Rick Crevier, commander of Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st U.S. Marines.

U.S. troops raced towards Baghdad early in the war, but left behind towns where Iraqi paramilitaries have tried to disrupt supply lines that stretch up to 375 km (235 miles) from Kuwait.


U.S. military officials have been fending off criticism that they launched the war with insufficient ground strength.

Some U.S. leaders had suggested many Iraqis, particularly in the Shi'ite south, would surrender or stage revolts after decades of repressive rule by Saddam's Baathist party.

But their hopes of a swift victory have faded in the face of tough Iraqi resistance and guerrilla tactics such as a suicide bombing on Saturday that killed four American soldiers.

A British survey showed support for the war had fallen for the first time since it began. A poll on Sunday said 55 percent of Americans felt the government had been too optimistic.

Worries that a long war in Iraq could derail the global economy hit European and Asian stocks on Monday. The dollar fell and oil prices rose, as did safe-haven gold.

In northern Iraq, U.S. aircraft continued to bomb targets in Iraqi government-held territory and U.S. and British special forces in the Kurdish-run zone scouted Iraqi positions.

Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz said the war was going well for Iraq and defended the use of suicide bombers.

"When you fight an invader by whatever means available to you, you are not a terrorist; you are a hero," he said.

The radical Palestinian group Islamic Jihad said it had sent would-be suicide bombers to Baghdad, and Iraq said 4,000 willing "martyrs" from across the Arab world were already there.

Kuwait said an Egyptian electrician is the main suspect in an incident on Sunday when a truck slammed into a group of U.S. soldiers in the emirate, injuring 15. His motives were unclear.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said the war on Iraq would have "horrible consequences" and produce "100 new bin Ladens".

He was referring to Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, blamed by the United States for the September 11 attacks.


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