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U.S.-Led Troops Head To Baghdad While Consolidating Positions In South

Prague, 22 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. and British forces are fighting to build on their positions in southern Iraq today, as other units push northward toward Baghdad.

U.S. officials say their forces have secured the Rumeila oil field -- Iraq's most productive -- and captured the southern city of Nassiriyah. The town is a key crossing point on the Euphrates River, about 320 kilometers southeast of Baghdad. Further to the southeast lies Basra -- the country's second-largest city. Coalition forces are trying to surround Iraqi positions around Basra and force a surrender of the city.

U.S. General Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. and coalition forces, outlined plans for Basra at a briefing in Qatar this afternoon: "Our intent is not to move through and create military confrontations in that city. Rather, we expect that we'll work with Basra and the citizens in Basra, in the same way I believe has been widely reported in Umm Qasr. What we have seen up to this point is that the Iraqis are welcoming the forces when they come in. And so, once again, this is about liberation and not about occupation."

U.S. and British forces say they mostly control the port of Umm Qasr, just beyond Basra, on the Kuwaiti border, although they continue operations against pockets of resistance in some parts of the town. Anglo-American forces also continue to be plagued by helicopter problems, as two British choppers collided over the Gulf early today killing all seven crewmen aboard and bringing to 19 the death toll from such accidents in two days. Two U.S. Marines have been killed so far in combat in Iraq.

Today's developments follow a fierce bombardment of Baghdad overnight. For nearly an hour, explosions rocked Iraq's capital, sending fireballs and thick smoke billowing into the night sky. Coalition ships in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea fired 320 Tomahawk missiles in the strikes -- the third and largest since the military operation began.

Iraq's information minister, Muhammad Said al-Sahhaf, said three civilians were killed and more than 200 others wounded during the airstrikes on Baghdad. The cities of Mosul and Kirkuk were also hit.

British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said today the operation was carefully calibrated to avoid civilian casualties and was aimed at government and military buildings in the capital: "The use of overwhelming force during last night's attack was not designed to turn Iraq into a wasteland. Rather, it was aimed at inflicting damage on the Iraqi regime whilst leaving civilian infrastructure as intact as possible. As last night's dramatic television coverage showed, the lights stayed on in Baghdad but the instruments of tyranny are collapsing."

Among the buildings targeted was the nine-story Security Headquarters, which took a direct hit, according to Baghdad-based journalists assessing the damage today. Other buildings in the Old Palace Compound, which stretches for more than two kilometers along the west bank of the Tigris River in central Baghdad, were also partly destroyed.

Another, smaller wave of airstrikes hit Baghdad late this afternoon. A full damage assessment has not yet been made.

As coalition forces continue to advance on Baghdad, the U.S. military says the 51st Infantry Division of the Iraqi Army has surrendered. The division is estimated to have some 8,000 men and as many as 200 tanks. That report was immediately denied by the Iraqi Information Ministry.

The Turkish Army, meanwhile, is denying reports that more than 1,000 Turkish soldiers have moved into northern Iraq, despite repeated calls by Washington for them not to do so. Iraqi Kurdish officials are also downplaying the report.

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul yesterday said his country would send in troops to prevent an influx of refugees and to prevent "terrorist activity." Turkey wants to block any attempts by Kurds in northern Iraq to create an independent state, a move it fears could cause a Kurdish separatist movement in Turkey.

Hoon today tried to calm tensions around the issue: "We are aware that a small Turkish force has gone into the north of Iraq, that the size of that force is consistent with a border policing operation. The Turks have made clear that they are only concerned to prevent instability in that border area and to the extent that their forces carry out those limited operations, then clearly we are relaxed about it. But obviously it is a sensitive situation and one that we will keep clearly under control."

Russia today spoke out again today against the U.S.-led military operation in Iraq. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said after a meeting of defense and foreign policy advisers that Moscow does not believe in what he called "democracy brought on the wings of Tomahawk missiles." Ivanov warned that Russia will oppose any moves by the United States and its allies to secure retroactive approval from the United Nations for the military action in Iraq.

"Russia will work closely on the [UN] resolutions on Iraq that will follow, and we'll speak against any direct or indirect attempt to legitimize this military action in the future."

Russia has economic and oil interests in Iraq and veto power in the UN Security Council. Russia aligned with France and China in opposing military action to topple Saddam Hussein and disarm Iraq of its suspected weapons of mass destruction.

Ivanov said Russia must defend its interests so that current contracts with Iraq are not canceled.

Yesterday, French President Jacques Chirac said France will not accept a U.S.-British postwar administration of Iraq.