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Iraq: U.S., British Forces Face Resistance As They Close In On Baghdad

Prague, 25 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S.-led forces are facing continued Iraqi resistance as they close in on Baghdad on the sixth day of the war. U.S. Marines fought a fierce battle with Iraqi forces in the strategic southern city of Nasiriya today before pushing through the city and crossing the Euphrates River.

Iraqi fighters in the city had been holding up one prong of the U.S.-led advance north since 23 March. The aim of that push is to open a new route north toward Baghdad that could eventually form the eastward arm of a pincer movement on the capital.

Agencies report that the U.S. convoy came under heavy fire today and responded with artillery, Cobra attack helicopters, and machine-gun fire before finally making it through the city and crossing the river.

Meanwhile, units farther north have advanced to within about 100 kilometers of the capital, and U.S. helicopters and warplanes have begun to attack elite Republican Guards protecting the city.

Explosions were heard on the outskirts of Baghdad again this morning.

U.S. Army Major General Stanley McChrystal, a Pentagon spokesman, said last night that the encounter with Republican Guards has so far been limited to a helicopter assault. "At this point, to my knowledge, we have not gotten into a direct firefight [on the ground] with Republican Guard forces. But [Republican Guards 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 Republican Guards forces have been "degraded" significantly due to U.S. attacks.

And he reiterated the view expressed by other U.S. and British officials that the war is progressing according to plan, despite a rising casualty toll, stiff pockets of resistance, the capture of around seven U.S. troops, and a friendly-fire incident that killed two pilots of a British jet.

The U.S. also lost one helicopter yesterday in an air assault near Karbala, south of Baghdad, and its two pilots were shown on Iraqi television.

Yesterday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the looming confrontation with the Republic Guards' Medina Division will be a defining moment. "Coalition forces led by the American 5th Corps are on the way to Baghdad. As we speak, they are about 60 miles [100 kilometers] south of Baghdad near Karbala. It is a little way from there that they will encounter the Medina Division of the Republican Guard, who are defending the route to Baghdad. This will plainly be a crucial moment," Blair said.

Iraqi leaders appear to have been buoyed by the stiff resistance shown by their troops in parts of the south, such as Basra. Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said yesterday it is a foretaste of what is to come.

A British military spokesman in Qatar said there are no plans at present for British troops to enter Basra to fight the highly trained Saddam Fedayeen militia holding out there. Earlier reports had indicated that British troops were preparing to enter the city. A second British soldier was killed today in fighting near the city.

Fighting around Basra has cut off water and electricity to its more than 1 million residents, fueling fears of a humanitarian crisis.

The United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, warned that at least 100,000 children in the city are at risk of disease

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called for water and electricity to be restored as quickly as possible. He is to meet with U.S. national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice today to talk about humanitarian issues.

In another development, U.S. President George W. Bush is expected today to officially unveil the kind of war budget he is seeking from Congress. Reports yesterday said the expected $75 billion figure would cover the cost of the war plus reconstruction.

And reports from Jordan say no Iraqi refugees have arrived there, despite expectations of a mass influx once the war started. Thousands of Iraqis have been traveling across the Jordanian border in the last few days, but it appears they're going back into Iraq.