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U.S. bombs presidential palace

By Nadim Ladki

Click to enlarge photo

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S. aircraft and cruise missiles have pounded central Baghdad, hitting a presidential palace used by President Saddam Hussein's son, as U.S. military leaders fended off growing criticism of their war plans and insisted the campaign was still on course.

"We jumped off our seats," said Reuters correspondent Samia Nakhoul early on the 12th day of the campaign to oust Saddam. "We can see flames coming out of the palace" in a complex used by Qusay Hussein on the west bank of the Tigris river.

On Sunday evening, another explosion rocked an area close to the Iraqi Information Ministry, which U.S. Central Command headquarters in Qatar said had been targeted with a cruise missile. Fires burned long into the evening in that area.

Faced with much stronger than expected opposition from regular and irregular forces loyal to Saddam, U.S. troops dug in south of Baghdad, apparently in no rush to assault the Iraqi capital until air strikes and artillery had ground down its defenders.

Round-the-clock air strikes hammered Baghdad as the U.S. military sought to break the back of elite Republican Guard units entrenched in the sprawling city's outskirts.

In Washington on Sunday, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld rejected criticism that he had launched the war with insufficient ground strength, but predicted Iraqi resistance would stiffen even more as U.S. troops approached Baghdad.

Some U.S. leaders and advocates of the war had predicted that many Iraqi units would not fight and that U.S. troops would be welcomed as liberators. But such rosy scenarios have not for the most part come to pass.

Rumsfeld, facing scrutiny over his influence on a war plan that involves far fewer troops than the number used in the 1991 Gulf War, flatly denied reports that he had rejected advice from Pentagon planners for substantially more men and armour.

RUMSFELD DENIES PENTAGON RIFT

"That is not true," Rumsfeld said on Sunday. "I think you'll find that if you ask anyone who's been involved in the process from the Central Command that every single thing they've requested has in fact happened."

Secretary of State Colin Powell, speaking on Sunday evening to a Jewish group in Washington, said: "I have total confidence in the (war) plan and total confidence in Gen. (Tommy) Franks and the other leaders who are carrying out that plan."

Gen. Richard Myers, head of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the campaign was going according to plan, with U.S. and British forces already in control of 40 percent of Iraq, but he gave a clear signal that there would be no swift ground assault on the Iraqi capital.

The aim before going in, he said, was to isolate Iraq's leadership and cut it off from the rest of the country.

"We're not going to do anything before we're ready," Myers said. "We're certainly not going to do anything to put our young men and women in danger precipitously. We're also not going to put Iraqi civilians in danger as well."

With casualties mounting, three U.S. troops were killed and a fourth injured when a Marine helicopter crashed on Sunday in southern Iraq, U.S. military spokesman said.

The U.S. military said 15 troops were injured on Sunday when a truck driven by a man wearing civilian clothes drove into a group of soldiers just outside a U.S. military base in Kuwait. The motives of the attacker, who was shot and wounded, were unclear. The incident followed a suicide attack inside Iraq on Saturday in which four U.S. soldiers died.

Still, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz said the war was going very well for Iraq and U.S. and British predictions of an easy victory had been proved false.

"They are surprised that the Iraqi people are resisting them courageously with a great determination to deter them. We are not surprised, we expected that, we said that," he said in a television interview aired by the BBC.

FIGHTING AROUND BASRA

Also on Sunday, the U.S. military said it had bombed the main training site for Iraqi Fedayeen paramilitary forces in eastern Baghdad, a presidential palace, an intelligence complex and surface-to-air missile sites.

Royal Marine commandos clashed with Iraqi paramilitary units south of Basra on Sunday in sometimes fierce fighting that left one soldier dead and an undetermined number wounded, a British military spokesman said.

British troops have still not tried to capture the southern city of 1.5 million, where more than a week of fighting has disrupted food and electricity supplies and forced many civilians to flee the city.

President George W. Bush, backed by Britain, launched the war to overthrow Saddam after saying he had refused to give up chemical and biological weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. Iraq said it has no such weapons and none has so far been found, although invading forces have found several thousand chemical warfare suits in captured Iraqi positions.

The United States has lost at least 39 dead and 104 injured with 17 listed as missing since the war began. Britain has lost 24 dead. Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri, in a letter to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, said 420 Iraqi civilians had died and at least 4,000 were wounded since the start of the war.

An Iraqi military spokesman, hailing Saturday's suicide bomb that killed four U.S. troops, said 4,000 willing "martyrs" from across the Arab world were already in Baghdad to fight.

Radical Palestinian group Islamic Jihad said it had sent would-be suicide bombers to Baghdad to help Iraqis fight U.S. and British troops and planned to send more.

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