Washington, 25 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Allied armies are reported as being within 80 kilometers of Baghdad in central Iraq, while U.S. troops in the north are enlisting the help of Kurdish forces and Britons are pressing for tighter control of Umm Qasr and the city of Basra.
American troops, fresh from battles with Iraqi forces, now must contend with fierce sandstorms at their positions southwest of Baghdad.
Coalition warplanes, including helicopter gunships, are for the first time engaging Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard protecting Baghdad.
But U.S. Army Major General Stanley McChrystal, a Pentagon spokesman, said yesterday in Washington that the engagement is limited so far to air strikes. "At this point, to my knowledge, we have not gotten into a direct firefight [on the ground] with Republican Guard forces. But they [Republican Guard forces] have been engaged with air forces and now with attack helicopters -- which belong to the [U.S.] Army, they're an arm of the ground forces -- and so all of the pieces are falling in place." McChrystal said.
McChrystal said the Medina Division is one of the better units of the Republican Guard, but adds that it has probably been "degraded," as he put it, by coalition attacks over the past two days.
Meanwhile, in northern Iraq, coalition forces are seeking to strengthen a northern front with heavy bombing near the key northern city of Mosul and in Chamchamal, near the oil center of Kirkuk. This indicates that coalition forces were hitting positions closer to the border with the Kurdish area.
In southern Iraq, British forces surrounding Basra, the country's second-largest city, remain in control of its airport, but they are continuing to face harassment from forces in the city itself. And pockets of resistance remain in nearby Umm Qasr, which was taken on 21 March.
The United States and Britain, which are fighting the war with help from Australia, say the war is progressing at or faster than the pace they expected and that there is no reason for concern, despite a sudden spate of bad news: stiff Iraqi resistance, friendly-fire incidents, sandstorms, mounting allied casualties, and the capture of some coalition troops.
In London yesterday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair told Parliament that he and U.S. President George W. Bush anticipate even more difficulties as the war proceeds. But he said there should be no doubt that when the fighting is over, coalition forces will be victorious and that Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction will be gone.
Blair also cited the positive progress achieved by the allies: "Thousands of Iraqi soldiers have surrendered. Still more have simply left the field, their units disintegrating. But there are those, closest to Saddam, that are resisting and will resist strongly. They are the elite that are hated by the local population and have little to lose. There are bound, therefore, to be difficult days ahead, but the strategy and its timing are proceeding according to plan."
In Washington, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke echoed Blair's words in response to reporters' questions about how the war had gone so well for the allies in the first day, then been so suddenly beset by setbacks. Clarke said the war is proceeding as it had been planned by General Tommy Franks, commander of the coalition forces in Iraq.
"We're on the fourth day of these operations. We are on the timeline -- if not slightly ahead -- that General Franks and his team have set. We have made considerable progress toward our objectives, that they have spelled out. We're securing the oil fields for the benefit of the Iraqi people. We have quite a bit of dominance from the air, we continue to make good progress heading toward Baghdad," Clarke said.
Franks himself briefed reporters yesterday in Doha, the capital of the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, where the United States and British forces are coordinating the war. The general reminded reporters that they should be prepared for a war that is not quick and for fighting that may last even after Saddam's regime is toppled.
According to Franks, resistance is likely to come from Iraqi troops that allied forces have deliberately avoided so far in their march toward Baghdad. "We have intentionally bypassed enemy formations, to include paramilitary and the fedayeen [militia], and so you can expect that our cleanup operations are going to be ongoing," Franks said.
U.S. and British officials have not only been preparing the public for the worst in war. They also took the offensive by accusing Iraqi armed forces of poorly treating its prisoners of war and violating the rules of war by having some units pretend to surrender, thereby luring coalition troops into ambushes. Clarke, the Pentagon spokeswoman, called such behavior "despicable."
The United States also went on the offensive diplomatically against Russia. Secretary of State Colin Powell said on American Fox News television that Russia is endangering U.S. troops in Iraq by selling Baghdad antitank guided missiles, night-vision goggles, and electronic devices for jamming global positioning systems (GPS).
The White House says the issue came up in tense telephone call between Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin is said to have answered Bush by saying the United States was responsible for "a humanitarian catastrophe" in Iraq.
Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer said: "The relations between the United States and Russia are important relations that the two presidents [Bush and Putin] are dedicated to keeping. There are problems. This clearly is a problem that needs to be resolved, and this is why it came up in the phone call, this is why it is disturbing, and this is why the two have talked about it."
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov emphatically denied that the Putin government sold any equipment, military or otherwise, to Iraq in violation of any international sanctions. But he added: "At the same time I want to state with all responsibility that if any facts are discovered that show sanctions against Iraq have been violated, it will be viewed as a serious violation of Russian legislation with all the consequences that will follow."
Iraq has been a difficult issue between the United States and Russia because Putin went along with France in refusing to support Bush's effort to have the United Nations Security Council approve a resolution that would have led to a UN-sanctioned war against Iraq if it did not disarm immediately.