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U.S. pounds Baghdad

By Samia Nakhoul

Click to enlarge photo

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Bombs and missiles have shaken the heart of Baghdad, amid signs that U.S. forces will defer any assault until they disable the capital's defences from the air and secured long supply lines against Iraqi attack.

But U.S. units battled Iraqi forces in several places on the southern approaches to the city and at least one American was killed as the war to remove President Saddam Hussein went into its 12th day.

Iraqi domestic television failed to come on air after a cruise missile hit the roof of the Information Ministry in the second night strike on the building in three days.

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

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

As U.S. military officials fended off criticism of their war strategy, General Richard Myers, head of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Sunday the campaign was proceeding as planned.

But he signalled there would be no swift ground assault on Baghdad. "We'll be patient. We'll just continue to draw the noose tighter and tighter," Myers said in Washington.

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

The fighting where the American soldier died on Monday was near Imam Aiyub, 110 km (70 miles) south of Baghdad.

Reuters correspondent Andrew Gray, with the troops, said U.S. artillery was firing towards the town and the Iraqis were hitting back with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.

CASUALTIES MOUNT

The United States has now lost 46 killed and 104 wounded with 17 listed as missing since the war began on March 20.

Britain has lost 24 dead. Iraq has said nearly 600 Iraqi civilians have been killed and more than 4,500 wounded.

A fierce firefight broke out between U.S. and Iraqi forces around a bridge over the Euphrates river at Hindiya, 80 km (50 miles), south of Baghdad, U.S. officers told Reuters.

Among Iraqi prisoners taken was an officer who said he was from the Nebuchadnezzar Division of the Republican Guard -- a claim that surprised U.S. commanders who said they had believed this division to be based much further to the 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.

Further south, U.S. Marines scoured the outskirts of the city of Nassiriya street by street to eliminate Iraqi fighters.

They launched a separate raid on the town of Shatra 50 km (31 miles) north of Nassiriya to try to kill Iraqi officials they believe are directing guerrilla attacks on supply convoys.

Reuters correspondent Sean Maguire said the Marine unit he was travelling with was targeting Ali Hassan al-Majid, or "Chemical Ali", the cousin Saddam has put in charge of the southern front. Majid earned his nickname by overseeing the use of poison gas against Kurdish villagers in 1988.

RUMSFELD FENDS OFF CRITICS

In Washington on Sunday, U.S. Defence 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.

Facing scrutiny over a war plan that involves far fewer troops than the number used in the 1991 Gulf War to end Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, Rumsfeld denied reports he rejected advice from Pentagon planners for substantially more men and armour.

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 poll on Sunday said 55 percent of Americans felt the government had been too optimistic.

A British survey published on Monday showed support for the war had fallen for the first time since it began and revealed a growing feeling both that the conflict would take longer than initially expected and that the campaign was not going well.

The prospect of a drawn-out war in Iraq helped drive down the dollar and Asian shares on Monday, while oil prices rose slightly and safe-haven investments like gold and bonds gained.

In the Nassiriya operation, Reuters correspondent Adrian Croft said new units brought in to reinforce the Marines set off before dawn on a first foot patrol through the edge of the city, which controls two vital bridges over Euphrates river waterways.

They picked their way through a complex of low, white buildings in an abandoned military training camp, finding weapons stores and gas masks, along with syringes which Marines said contained the nerve gas antidote atropine.

"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.

"We want to free up lines of communication so that we can have humanitarian assistance go into Nassiriya unimpeded."

Marines fought their way across the city's bridges last Tuesday but have failed to take control of Nassiriya, with its population of about 560,000, from mainly paramilitary fighters.

MORE BOMBING IN NORTH

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.

The U.S. military said 15 troops were hurt on Sunday when a truck driven by a man in civilian clothes drove into a group of soldiers outside a U.S. base in Kuwait. The motives of the attacker, who was shot and wounded, were unclear.

British forces retracted a claim they had captured an Iraqi general in clashes with paramilitaries south of Iraq's second city Basra on Sunday. "He was misidentified as a general. He was just another officer," said a British military spokesman.

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