Prague, 3 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- There are reports this morning that units of Iraq's Republican Guard are moving to the south of Baghdad to defend the capital against a U.S.-led advance.
These moves are as yet unconfirmed, but military officials tell two Western news agencies that U.S. spy planes spotted an unspecified number of Republican Guard soldiers moving in the direction of Baghdad's airport.
The reports come after coalition forces yesterday moved to within just 30 to 50 kilometers of the Iraqi capital in a two-pronged advance.
The war is now entering its third week amid reports of civilian casualties that are fueling antiwar sentiment in many countries, particularly Iraq's Arab neighbors.
Yesterday, U.S. troops fought Republican Guard troops to the southwest and southeast of the capital and captured two key bridges over rivers controlling the approaches to Baghdad.
In the west, troops crossed the Euphrates at Mussayib, north of Karbala. Farther east, U.S. Marines crossed the Tigris River near Kut and -- according to the U.S. -- "destroyed" the Baghdad Division of the Republican Guard.
Coalition commanders speak of the war entering "a decisive phase." The Iraqi regime has a "dagger at its heart," said one. But U.S. Major General Stanley McChrystal said last night there are still tough days ahead. "We are now engaging the [Iraqi] Republican Guard divisions defending the outskirts of Baghdad and the regular forces throughout the south supporting the Iraqi regime. We've moved to within 30 miles [about 50 kilometers] of Baghdad, but there remains tough fighting ahead," McChrystal said.
Iraqi officials gave a different version of yesterday's events, The commander of the Baghdad Division appeared on state television denying his unit had been destroyed. And the Iraqi information minister, Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf, dismissed the advances as an "illusion."
"They [American officials] are lying every day. They are lying always, and mainly, they are lying to their public opinion. Therefore, what they have said about, or alleged about, a breakthrough [near Baghdad], this is completely an illusion," al-Sahhaf said.
State television read a letter said to be from Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, vowing that Iraqi troops will repel the invading armies. "They will not let them reach Baghdad," the letter said. "They will cripple them until they return to their countries defeated, leaving our country for its people."
There are no casualty figures yet for yesterday's fighting. The U.S. says 51 of its soldiers have died since the war began. That official toll looks set to rise further after two U.S. aircraft went down in Iraq overnight.
A Blackhawk helicopter was shot down near Karbala last night, with reports of seven soldiers killed. And a single-seat U.S. fighter jet is also missing over Iraq, presumed to have been shot down by a surface-to-air missile. There is no word yet on the fate of the pilot.
Civilian casualties are also mounting. U.S. Central Command says it is investigating reports that coalition warplanes bombed a Red Crescent maternity hospital in Baghdad yesterday.
In an incident on 1 April, Iraqi officials said 33 people, including many children, were killed during a U.S. bombing raid in the central city of Hilla. The International Red Cross says dozens of civilians were killed in the city and at least 280 people were injured.
The U.S. says it is investigating the reports and checking to see if controversial cluster bombs used in the fighting were to blame. Pictures of children killed or wounded in the fighting at Hilla have further fueled anger in the region. Arab newspapers have spoken of "massacres" of innocent civilians.
The U.S. has already apologized for the shooting deaths of seven women and children at a checkpoint near Najaf on 31 March.
The civilian casualties prompted strong criticism yesterday from Jordan's King Abdullah -- the first time he has spoken out against the war. He said he feels "pained and saddened" to see "the increasing number of martyrs among innocent Iraqi civilians."
In other developments today, Baghdad and its outskirts came under further bombardment. The U.S. Central Command in Qatar said coalition forces dropped almost 40 "smart bombs" last night on a military storage facility in the Karkh District of Baghdad. "Smart bombs" zero in on their targets by satellite navigation.
Reports also say U.S. Marines have tightened their grip on the southern city of Nasiriya, after apparently breaking Iraqi resistance from Saddam Fedayeen militia.
And Al-Jazeera satellite television says it is ending its reports from Iraq after Baghdad barred two of its correspondents from reporting. The Iraqi government gave no reason for its action against the Qatar-based station, which the U.S. and Britain have accused of bias.