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Iraq: Explosions Rock Baghdad As U.S.-Led Forces Continue Toward Capital

Baghdad, 26 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The United States military has reported killing large numbers of Iraqi forces near the central Iraqi city of Najaf, Baghdad has meanwhile come under new bombardment, and there are reports of an uprising in Basra as the U.S.-led attack on Iraq entered its seventh day. A series of large explosions was reported this morning on the southern outskirts of Baghdad, and at least one explosion was reported in the city center.

Smoke was seen rising from the Baghdad area around the Iraqi Ministry of Information and state television.

A U.S. defense official said a large number of Iraqi fighters were believed killed by U.S. Army forces after the Americans came under attack by rocket-propelled grenades near Najaf, south of Baghdad.

The official gave no firm details of the casualties, but said reports indicated that between 150 and 500 Iraqis may have been killed.

The Iraqi forces were reported to be on foot and it was not clear whether they were from regular army units, paramilitary forces, or the Republican Guard.

No American casualties were reported. The U.S. troops involved in the fighting, the 7th Cavalry Regiment, are part of Army forces driving toward Baghdad.

In the south, British forces equipped with tanks and other armored vehicles are massing outside Basra, a city of about 1.3 million people. An estimated 1,000 Iraqi troops has kept British forces from entering Basra. They include elements of the Republican Guard as well as irregulars known as Fedayeen Saddam, or Hussein's guerrillas.

British military spokesman Chris Vernon, speaking yesterday in Kuwait City, said his country's forces are being careful in how they respond to the Iraqis troops in Basra.

"We are not firing into the center of the city [Basra] because we cannot risk the collateral damage to the civilians, even though we are being fired on from the center by their artillery."

A British news report says some civilians in Basra are rising up against the Hussein loyalists. The account says the loyalists have been firing mortars at the civilians, and that the British were firing rockets at the loyalists.

Iraq is denying an uprising in Basra, and coalition officials say they cannot confirm the report.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld cautioned the citizens of Basra from endangering their lives by rising up prematurely. But he added: "Anyone who is engaged in an uprising [like in Basra] has got a whale of a lot of courage and I sure hope they are successful."

During the press briefing at the Pentagon, Rumsfeld also expressed concern about some Iranian-backed Iraqis operating in southern Iraq. He said Iran has so far refrained from action that would complicate the allies' military operations.

Rumsfeld said he hopes Iran will continue to stay out of the conflict, but noted that Iran has been hostile to Iraq during the past three decades, and he said Tehran's support of Iraqi dissidents is "unhelpful."

Foreign support of Iraq's government also remains a contentious issue. Yesterday, the Russian government again denied U.S. accusations that it had sold sensitive military equipment to Hussein's military, including six electronic jamming devices known as GPS jamming systems, in violation of international sanctions.

"The Washington Post," and American newspaper, reported on 23 March that some Russian companies made military sales to Iraq. The report identified them as KBP Tula, which provided antitank guided missiles, and Aviaconversiya, which supplied the jamming devices. Both companies deny the report.

Kremlin spokesman Aleksei Gromov said in Moscow that such an accusation could damage U.S.-Russian relations. He hinted at situations in which the United States had sold military equipment to other countries, but did not identify the purchasers.

The U.S. military says the issue now appears to be irrelevant, at least from a war-fighting point of view. U.S. Air Force General Victor Renuart -- speaking at the allied command center in Doha, the capital of the Gulf nation of Qatar -- said yesterday that coalition warplanes had resolved the issue.

"We have noticed some attempts by the Iraqis to use a GPS jamming system that they have procured from another nation. Actually, we have been able to identify the location of each of those jammers, and I am happy to report that we have destroyed all six of those jammers in the last two nights air strikes."

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Tony Blair flies today to the United States to meet with U.S. President George W. Bush. The two men will meet at Camp David, the presidential retreat outside Washington. Their meetings will last through 27 March.

Blair's Iraq policy has met broad popular opposition in Britain and even a small revolt within his Labour Party. Yesterday, seeking to portray his position in the best possible light, the prime minister told a news conference in London that he and Bush will speak of more than war.

"I will see President Bush at Camp David to discuss not just the military campaign, but also the diplomatic implications of recent events for the future, In particular, how we get America and Europe working again together as partners and not as rivals, to assess the best way of dealing with the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, how we rebuild Iraq, post-Saddam, and also, of course, our approach to the Middle East peace process and to the Arab world more generally."

Meanwhile, Turkey says it will send its forces no farther than 12 miles into northern Iraq to stop any flood of refugees -- and even then only in response to a crisis warranting the introduction of troops.

In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell welcomed the decision by Turkey's prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan.

"Turkey is a great friend. I am deeply appreciative and all Americans are of the efforts made by Mr.[Tayyip] Erdogan to take this issue to his parliament, and we are in the closest consultation with Prime Minister Erdogan and Foreign Minister [Abdullah] Gul and other officials on their needs and in the closest consultations with them with respect situation in northern Iraq."

The United States and the European have been putting pressure on Turkey not to send its forces unilaterally into northern Iraq. The Bush administration says it is concerned that Turkish troops could end up clashing with local Iraqi Kurdish fighters.