Prague, 29 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Four U.S. soldiers were killed today in a suicide car bombing in central Iraq, as coalition forces subjected Baghdad and other cities to another day of air strikes and artillery fire.
The bomb attack occurred at a checkpoint manned by U.S. troops near the city of Najaf, some 160 kilometers south of the Iraqi capital. All of the victims belonged to the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division.
Western news reports quote U.S. officers as saying the driver of a taxi blew himself up at a roadblock north of Najaf, where U.S. forces are regrouping with an eye to pushing toward Baghdad. The blast occurred while the soldiers were approaching to inspect the vehicle.
This is the first time a suicide car bombing has been reported in that part of Iraq since the beginning of the war 10 days ago.
Shortly after news of the attack became public, a leading Iraqi Muslim cleric, Sheikh Abdul Karim al-Mudaress, pronounced a fatwa, or religious edict, urging all Iraqi citizens to fight U.S. troops and their British allies.
In Baghdad today, Iraqi Information Minister Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf said coalition forces would be routed: "[The Americans and the British] have invaded our country. They are thrusting toward Baghdad. They are like a boa snake. Now its length is more than 500 kilometers, and we are going to cut this snake into pieces."
Iraq's second-largest city, Basra, remains under siege today with British forces trying to break the resistance of ruling Ba'ath Party militiamen.
The British command today said coalition troops have no plans to rush into the city but will stick to tactics aimed at eroding Iraqi resistance.
In what was presented as an attempt to strike a "psychological blow" to Ba'ath supporters, British forces today made a brief incursion into Basra's city center, destroying two statues of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and five Iraqi tanks.
British and Iraqi forces exchanged artillery and mortar fire, while civilians were leaving the embattled city.
The fierce opposition met by coalition forces in central and southern Iraq has prompted vanguard units to pause in their advance toward Baghdad as logistical teams are checking food and water supplies and as troop reinforcements are being shipped into the Gulf region from the United States.
Addressing reporters in Qatar today, U.S. Major General Victor Renuart said there would be no pause on the battlefield but admitted that coalition troops are taking control of more airfields in southern Iraq, partly to allow for better supply and communication lines: "We continue to take control of airfields, and we are operating from some airfields in southern Iraq with combat search and rescue [units specialized in searching for and rescuing army personnel], close air support and, obviously, logistic support to our force in the field."
Meanwhile, coalition forces maintain their pressure on Iraqi troops defending the approaches to Baghdad.
Ground elements and helicopter gunships of the 101st Airborne Division entered the battlefield overnight in Najaf, clashing with the elite Iraqi Republican Guard's Medina Division. The American command claims the attack left 25 Iraqi tanks, armored vehicles, and trucks destroyed and 50 Iraqi guardsmen killed.
Heavy bombing was also reported near Karbala, north of Al-Najaf.
An RFE/RL correspondent embedded with the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division says multiple-rocket launchers, fighter jets, and attack helicopters pounded Republican Guard units positioned between Karbala and Lake Bahr al-Milh overnight. Airstrikes and rocket barrages were continuing by the middle of the day.
The U.S. Air Force also stepped attacks on Baghdad, which sustained heavy bombing today.
Reports say bombs and missiles were dropped on the capital's center and southern edge. Similar air raids were carried out overnight, with one missile hitting the Information Ministry building.
Information Minister al-Sahhaf today said the air raids on Baghdad had killed 62 people since last night, including many civilians who died when a missile reportedly hit a market.
Al-Sahhaf also denied U.S. claims that Iraqi soldiers clad in civilian clothes are deceiving coalition troops: "This kind of cheap propaganda, saying Iraqi military persons are disguising themselves with civilian clothes, has nothing to do with the facts and the truth."
Ongoing military operations have also been affecting neighboring countries.
In Kuwait, which hosts tens of thousands of U.S. and British soldiers, authorities said Iraqi troops positioned on the Al-Faw peninsula fired a missile that exploded near a shopping mall in Kuwait City. Two civilians, including an Egyptian, were wounded.
Also today, the U.S. Central Command admitted that a number of Tomahawk cruise missiles had accidentally landed on Saudi Arabia's territory, forcing military planners to suspend certain routes for launches.
Yesterday, another stray missile landed near the village of Buyuk Murdes in southeastern Turkey's Sanliurfa Province, causing no damage. This was the third such incident reported by Turkish authorities in less than a week.
U.S. soldiers and military engineers today went to the region to collect the debris, but dozens of angry villagers attacked them, throwing stones at their vehicles.
No casualties were reported, but Turkish paramilitary forces had to step in to move the U.S. soldiers away from the angry crowd.
Turkey last week opened its airspace to U.S. warplanes and cruise missiles for strikes on Iraq, but an overwhelming majority of the population opposes the war.
In Istanbul today, security forces used teargas and rubber truncheons to disperse a crowd of antiwar protesters gathered on Taksim Square.