US Upbeat Saddam Defiant After Five Days of War

BAGHDAD (Reuters)–The US general commanding the invasion of Iraq said on Monday his forces were closing in on Saddam Hussein’s power base in and around Baghdad as the Iraqi president told his people the invaders had miscalculated.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said US advance units were just 60 miles south of the Iraqi capital and predicted that a critical battle was fast approaching after five days of war.

But Saddam’s deputy prime minister–Tareq Aziz–told a news conference the Iraqi leadership was in good shape–that Saddam himself was "in full control of the army and the country" and that their enemies had underestimated his popularity.

US General Tommy Fran’s described Iraqi resistance as "sporadic" despite "terrific firefights" and said his forces were intentionally skirting enemy formations in their cross-country advance on Baghdad.

"Progress toward our objectives has been rapid and in some cases dramatic," Fran’s said–despite 24 hours of setbacks that included the death and capture of US soldiers and the loss of at least one US helicopter.

As fresh reports of clashes filtered through from the battlefield–and planes and missiles bombarded the outskirts of Baghdad–military planners and weather forecasters predicted sandstorms in the coming days.

Blair told the British parliament that the "vital goal" was to reach the Iraqi capital as swiftly as possible.

A Crucial Moment

"Coalition forces led by the American 5th Corps are on the way to Baghdad. As we speak–they are about 60 miles south of Baghdad near Kerbala," Blair said.

The Iraqi fightback has been sharpest around the southern city of Nassiriya.

Iraqi forces on Sunday attacked US forces holding two strategic bridges across the Euphrates River there–killing some US soldiers and stalling advancing armor waiting to cross at that point.

Financial markets have begun to factor in a longer war than expected to depose Saddam and disarm Iraq. Stocks suffered–sending investors back into safe-haven bonds. Oil prices and gold rose–while the dollar slipped.

But US forces have been advancing to the west of the Euphrates. Reuters correspondent Luke Baker–traveling with US army engineers–said they had set up an airfield near the Shi’ite Muslim holy city of Najaf to put up unmanned planes and spy on Republican Guard holding the road to Baghdad.

As Fran’s spoke at his headquarters in Qatar–Reuters correspondent Sean Maguire said US artillery had opened up on targets near Nassiriya. Reuters correspondent Andy Gray reported fighting near Samawa–further along the road to Baghdad.

In the Kurdish-ruled north–Reuters correspondent Collett-White said US soldiers were there–and Iraqi lines in the area were bombed for the first time–in signs that a second–smaller front may be opening in the war.

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