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Iraq: Battle For Baghdad Looms As U.S., British Forces Meet Resistance

Prague, 25 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S.-led forces are closing in on Baghdad amid warnings by a top U.S. general that the toughest battles of the war still lie ahead.

Units of the U.S. Army are now within about 100 kilometers of the capital, and U.S. helicopters and bombers last night and today attacked positions believed to be held by elite Republican Guards defending approaches to the city.

As the war goes into a sixth day, Richard Meyers, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "We think the toughest fighting is ahead of us."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair told a news conference that much has been achieved so far. "Coalition forces are, therefore, continuing what is effectively a two-pronged advance. U.S. 5th Corps [soldiers] are advancing along the road to Karbala. The lead elements have reached Karbala. They are opposed by the Republican Guard Medina Division. The Medina Division is now under heavy air attack, although poor weather will hamper this," Blair said.

A sandstorm has swept across the area, complicating the movements of soldiers.

Further south, there were breakthroughs for the allies -- as well as reports of continued resistance.

U.S. Marines fought a fierce battle with Iraqi forces in the strategic southern city of Nasiriya before pushing through the city and crossing the Euphrates River.

Iraqi fighters there 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.

In another apparent breakthrough today, British officials say the key southern port of Umm Qasr is now secure following several days of fighting.

In Baghdad, however, Iraqi Information Minister Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf said Iraqi forces killed eight U.S. or British soldiers during fighting in the southern province of Muthanna. There has been no confirmation of these figures from the U.S. or Britain.

Al-Sahhaf also said 16 people were killed and 95 wounded in the overnight bombing in Baghdad. "In Muthanna Governorate, there has been, during the night, last night and in the dawn, very fierce fighting against an American column which approached that area, until about 10:40 this morning. The results are the following: the Iraqi fighters, Arab Ba'ath Socialist Party fighters, and the masses supporting the party activists. They have destroyed 30 vehicles, some of them tanks and personnel carriers, and they have destroyed three helicopters, three American helicopters.," al-Sahhaf said.

Iraqi military spokesman Hazem al-Rawi said an Iraqi carried out the first suicide attack of the war by blowing up a tank and himself on the southern Al-Faw Peninsula.

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

But Blair said today that no one should be surprised at the resistance encountered so far. "Iraq and its security apparatus exists to support the regime of Saddam Hussein," Blair said. "Nobody should be surprised, therefore, that there are parts of the armed forces determined to fight, for they know that when the regime falls -- which it will -- they will have nowhere to go."

Blair also said Iraqis have been holding back from rebelling against the regime because they had been let down in the past, such as in the aftermath of the Gulf War of 1991 that left Saddam Hussein in power. But Blair promised that the U.S.-led coalition will not let the Iraqi people down "this time."

Meanwhile, the deteriorating situation in Basra continues to cause concern. Fighting around Basra has disrupted water and electricity supplies to its more than 1 million residents, fueling fears of a humanitarian crisis. The UN 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 U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice today to talk about humanitarian issues.

The British military said today that Basra is now a military target. But officials denied earlier reports that British troops will enter the city. A second British soldier was killed today in fighting near the city.

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.