Prague, 7 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. troops are in the heart of Baghdad this morning, where they say they have secured two of the palaces belonging to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein on the west bank of the Tigris River.
Sixty-five tanks and 40 armored vehicles took part in the attack, the biggest incursion yet into Baghdad in the 19-day-old war.
There was a heavy exchange of gunfire during the incursion and Iraqi forces are reported to have blocked some of the city bridges across the Tigris. Iraqi troops are also reported to be defending ministries with rocket-propelled grenades.
U.S. officials said marines also entered the capital from the southeast, where two were killed in fighting to secure bridges across a Tigris tributary.
Live television pictures showed U.S. soldiers on Baghdad's parade grounds in an area of the capital that also has many key government buildings.
Just 2 kilometers away on the other side of the Tigris, Iraqi Information Minister Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf appeared on a hotel roof to hold an impromptu press conference. He denied any U.S. tanks were in the capital and said Baghdad is safe. "The [U.S. forces] have no control, even of themselves. Don't believe them. Those invaders will be slaughtered," he said.
But this morning's dramatic television pictures appeared to tell a different story, showing the beginning of the final assault on Baghdad.
At U.S. Central Command in Qatar, however, the operation was described as an armored raid -- "a show of force" not designed to take ground. Central Command Spokesman Frank Thorp said a lot of tough battles still lie ahead with elite troops from Iraq's Republican Guard.
A British military spokesman, Al Lockwood, said he expects U.S. troops to take a number of key targets today to prove Saddam Hussein's regime has lost control. He also said the incursion should encourage Saddam Hussein's government to capitulate.
Lockwood also said British forces are now in control of most of Basra, Iraq's second largest city, but are still facing some resistance.
Also in the south, another British spokesman said troops have found the body of the top Iraqi military commander known as "Chemical Ali." Major Andrew Jackson said Ali Hassan al-Majid's body was found in Basra. Al-Majid, a cousin of Saddam Hussein, was dubbed "Chemical Ali" for ordering a poison-gas attack in 1988 that killed several thousand Kurds.
In the north, Al-Jazeera television reported heavy shelling early this morning in Mosul, which is still under Iraqi control. Just northeast of Mosul, Kurdish fighters say they captured the town of Ain Sifni.
Yesterday, the area around Mosul was the scene of a friendly-fire incident in which U.S. planes bombed a convoy of Kurdish fighters and U.S. special forces. At least 18 people were killed and at least 45 others injured, including the brother of Kurdish leader Mas'ud Barzani.
On the political front, U.S. President George W. Bush is set to meet Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair in Northern Ireland today to discuss plans for a post-Saddam Iraq. The two agree on the broad outlines of a three-stage procedure for running Iraq. But there are still disagreements on the role the United Nations should play.