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Iraq: Coalition Says War Going As Planned, Despite Setbacks

Prague, 24 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- As the ground war in Iraq entered its fifth day, U.S. and British officials expressed confidence in the continued coalition advance on Baghdad, saying troops are moving ahead on schedule, despite a series of skirmishes with Iraqi forces.

British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon, speaking at a press briefing today, downplayed yesterday's spate of deadly clashes in which several U.S. soldiers were killed and others were taken prisoner by Iraq. "What we are seeing is the activity of relatively small numbers of desperate men, members of the security organizations or militias most closely associated with the regime, such as the Fedayeen Saddam, who believe that they have nothing to lose. The difficulty of dealing with such resistance should not be underestimated, but it does not alter the fact that Saddam Hussein's writ [authority] no longer runs in large parts of the country," Hoon said.

By contrast, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein appeared on state television today, telling his people that U.S. and British forces are getting bogged down. He congratulated Iraqi fighters in the field and urged them to redouble their efforts. "Each time the enemies are defeated at the hands of your heroic ground forces, they will increase their bombing on you. Persevere, for your stature in the eyes of God is large, God willing. The result of your patience will be victory," Hussein said.

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. Hussein singled out several Iraqi commanders fighting in the area by name.

Although some coalition units have advanced to within 80 kilometers of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, other troops have been slowed by Iraqi resistance in southern cities initially believed to be under control. In addition to operations in Umm Qasr, correspondents say British and U.S. forces are preparing for an all-out blitz of Nasiriyah to dislodge remaining Iraqi fighters holed up in that city.

Yesterday, violent clashes erupted in Nasiriyah, a strategic crossing point on the Euphrates River. Iraqi television subsequently 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 says fewer than 10 U.S. soldiers had been killed and that another 12 are missing as a result of the fighting.

Also in the south, armed Iraqis surfaced around the Rumaila oil fields today, forcing the U.S. military to declare it a "no-go" zone and to 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 are thus seen as a key strategic site.

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

In Karbala, 80 kilometers south of Baghdad, Iraq claims to have shot down two Apache helicopters and to be holding two pilots prisoner. Iraqi state television showed pictures of one downed helicopter in a grassy field and men holding Kalashnikov automatic rifles and dancing around the aircraft. The other alleged downed helicopter was not shown.

Iraqi Information Minister Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf said in Baghdad that the aircraft were shot down by local civilians. "A few peasants, brave peasants, have shot down two Apache helicopters. We've shown one of them on the Iraqi television, and maybe, if we find it convenient, maybe we will show the pilots," al-Sahhaf said.

U.S. military officials confirm that one U.S. helicopter is missing. Al-Sahhaf also said 62 Iraqis had been killed around the country by U.S.-led forces in the past 24 hours. There was no immediate confirmation of that figure.

Meanwhile, reports from northern Iraq say a battle has begun near the city of Kirkuk. Iraqi Kurds and government troops clashed today, and U.S. warplanes bombarded Iraqi positions between the town of Chamchamal and Kirkuk.

U.S. special forces were flown into the area, the eastern part of the Kurdish zone, which is controlled by the pro-U.S. Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

The Arabic-language Al-Jazeera satellite television station is also reporting that the southern Iraqi city of Basra is coming under bombardment today. The city has been without water and electricity for three days, and there are concerns about the humanitarian situation of its residents.