US Forces Push Close to Baghdad Warplanes Hit City

BAGHDAD (Reuters)–US forces battled Republican Guard on the southern approaches to Baghdad on Monday and colossal airstrikes pounded the Iraqi capital–ratcheting up the pressure on President Saddam Hussein.

With fighting raging near the site of ancient Babylon and at various other points along the Euphrates river–advance units of the US and British invasion army were 80 km (50 miles) from Baghdad–their closest point to Saddam’s powerbase.

"We’re coming. Where the regime is–we’re coming,” Brigadier General Vincent Brooks said at US Central Command in Qatar–adding that some elite Iraqi units were in serious difficulty.

Iraq remained defiant and Saddam appeared on television alongside his two sons. It was the first time that his eldest son Uday had been seen on video since the war opened on March 20–but it was not clear when the footage was taken.

An array of missiles and bombs rained down on targets around Baghdad in an effort to wear down its defenses ahead of an eventual assault by US divisions moving up through the desert.

Three huge explosions shook the city center in the afternoon. One hit a presidential palace used by Saddam’s second son Qusay–who comman’s the Republican Guard–sending a mushroom of white smoke from the battered complex.

The strikes came after what sounded like a big artillery barrage on the city’s southern edge. Jets screamed low through anti-aircraft fire. Explosions echoed from the south and west.

US officers said Iraqi militia and Republican Guard units suffered heavy losses in fierce fighting near the towns of Hindiya and Hilla on the approaches to Baghdad. At least one American soldier died in the day-long clashes.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri hurled insults at the US and British "mercenaries,” saying they would die in the desert. "With every passing day–they are sinking deeper into the mud of defeat and their losses are increasing,” he declared.

Bombing around Mosul

In the north–US planes bombed targets in and around the city of MOSUL. Elsewhere–Brooks said US special forces were "denying freedom of movement throughout the western desert.”

South of Baghdad–US troops called in air strikes to try to smash the resolve of the Iraqi defenders–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–thought to have been based much further north.

Brooks said this might indicate that the Iraqis were bringing in reinforcemen’s or replacing losses.

The death of a US soldier near Hilla raised the US 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.

US 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.

Some US units have now turned back south to try to quell the resistance–which has proved stronger than expected.

Marines who had been heading north towards Kut and Baghdad retraced their steps and raided the town of Shatra north of the key city of Nassiriya on Monday. Hundreds of Iraqis shouting "Welcome to Iraq” greeted the Marines as they entered the town.

The glowing reception was a tonic for soldiers who have not been they greeted with the warmth they had expected after US and British leaders told them the Iraqi people were waiting to be freed from repression under Saddam.

"It’s not every day you get to liberate people,” said one delighted Marine.

Hunting ‘Chemical Ali’

Reuters correspondent Sean Maguire–traveling with the Marines–said they were targeting Iraqi officials commanding lightly armed forces which have attacked US 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.

British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said on Monday that no senior Iraqi politicians or soldiers had defected despite 12 days of bombardment. However–he said some 8,000 Iraqi prisoners of war had been taken.

As US and British troops labor to overcome forces loyal to Saddam across the southern half of Iraq–Western planes enjoyed complete control of the skies.

Long-range B-1–B-2 and B-52 bombers joined forces in the early hours of Monday to hit communication and command centers–shaking buildings across Baghdad as their bombs struck home.

However–General Richard Myers–head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff–said there was no rush to storm the city. "We’ll be patient,” he said in Washington.

Worries that a long war in Iraq could derail the global economy hit stocks on Monday–with the Dow Jones Industrial average tumbling 2.5 percent in early New York trade. The dollar fell–oil prices spiked and safe-haven gold rose.

"With no sign of any kind of breakthrough–it looks like a long–slogging war,” said Larry Wachtel–market analyst at Prudential Securities.

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 their government had been too optimistic.

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.

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.

With humanitarian aid just starting to trickle into Iraq–British troops opened the taps on a hastily built water pipeline in the southern port of Umm Qasr–one of the few Iraqi towns the invasion force controls.

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