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U.S.-Led Forces Enter Fifth Day Of Fighting As Hussein Praises Iraqi Troops

Prague, 24 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Air raids against the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, and the northern city of Mosul continue this morning as U.S. and British forces enter their fifth day of fighting in Iraq.

Journalists in Mosul, which lies 350 kilometers north of Baghdad, say the city came under two waves of bombing, two hours apart, this morning. The sky in and around the city was filled with plumes of smoke.

Kurdish commanders report that hundreds of American forces have been flying into the surrounding region from neighboring Turkey, in a sign the U.S. may soon open a northern front.

Meanwhile, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein appeared on Iraqi state television this morning, delivering a speech praising his military's resistance and urging them to continue fighting: "The enemy has invaded our holy land of valiant people. Strike them, our heroic mujahedin. Strike your enemy with all force and precision, all noble Iraqis. Lure the enemy to the point where they find themselves unable to continue or to commit more crimes against you or your nation or humanity. At that time, you will reap stability and grandeur as a result of your victory."

In an indication that the Iraqi leader remains alive and in control, Hussein specifically referred to ongoing fighting between Iraqi forces and coalition soldiers in the southern port of Umm Qasr. He singled out several Iraqi commanders fighting in the area by name.

Fighting today continues in southern Iraq, where U.S. and British forces faced fierce resistance yesterday in several locations. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz -- traveling with U.S. troops -- reports that American forces fired mortar rounds on Iraqi bunker positions this morning outside the city of Samawah, along the road connecting the main southern city of Basra to Baghdad: Yesterday, the U.S. military said allied forces faced stiff resistance at Nasiriyah, Najaf, Basra and Umm Qasr, although other units managed to advance to within 160 kilometers of the capital, Baghdad.

At Central Command headquarters in Qatar, U.S. Army Lieutenant-General John Abizaid gave details about one of the fire fights around the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah, a crossing point over the Euphrates River: "Suffice it to say that it was a very sharp engagement [at Nasiriyah], but the Marines were successful. They defeated the enemy. The first reports indicated they destroyed eight tanks, some antiaircraft batteries that were in the region and also some artillery, along with a number of infantry."

Iraqi television showed five U.S. soldiers it said were captured near Nasiriyah, as well as numerous bodies said to be dead U.S. soldiers. The U.S. military said less than 10 U.S. soldiers had been killed, and another 12 were missing as a result of fighting at Nasiriyah.

General Abizaid said there had been several incidents in which groups of Iraqi soldiers raised white flags in apparent surrender, only to attack U.S. forces as they got closer. In another setback for the allies yesterday, a U.S. Patriot missile accidentally shot down a British Tornado fighter jet as it was returning to base in Kuwait. The two British pilots were killed.

In other news, U.S. officials say their forces advancing towards Baghdad have found a chemical factory near the city of Najaf, about 160 kilometers south of the Iraqi capital. The U.S. Central Command issued a statement saying troops are examining areas of interest at the plant. An Iraqi general and two Iraqi officers reportedly taken prisoner at the plant are being questioned by U.S. forces.

Meanwhile, armed Iraqis surfaced around the southern Rumaila oil fields today, forcing the U.S. military to declare it a "no-go" zone and cancel a planned tour by journalists of what had previously been described as a secure area. The fields are the country's most productive and thus seen as a key strategic site.

U.S. military spokeswoman Lieutenant-Colonel Jennifer Cassidy said despite the renewed military activity in the area, coalition forces are in no danger of losing their grip on the oil fields.

Britain's Defense Ministry has confirmed that two of its soldiers are missing after a convoy of vehicles they were traveling in was attacked in southern Iraq yesterday. The Defense Ministry said it was being deliberately vague about the suspected location of the soldiers for safety and operational reasons.

Syria's state-run news agency reports today that a U.S. missile hit a Syrian passenger bus on the Iraqi side of the border yesterday morning, as it was about to cross into Syria, killing five people and injuring 10 others. The agency says the bus was carrying Syrians fleeing the war in Iraq. The U.S. command has not commented.