Prague, 28 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Explosions mixed with the sounds of traffic and car alarms in the Iraqi capital Baghdad this morning. Coalition air strikes targeted communications centers and knocked out some telephone lines in some of the heaviest bombing of the city yet in the nine-day-old war. Another bombing run targeted Iraqi tanks outside the capital.
And there was continued fighting in and around Nasiriyah and the central city of Najaf, where U.S. troops advancing on the capital clashed with around 1,500 Iraqis overnight.
A spokesman at U.S. Central Command, U.S. Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, said U.S. troops defeated paramilitary forces in that battle. "[The U.S.] 5th Corps, also from the land component, defeated paramilitary attacks north of An-Najaf and continues to shape the battlefield for future operations," Brooks said.
However, Iraqi Information Minister Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf said "valiant Iraqi forces" successfully beat back the U.S.-led attack. But he said coalition bombing on the city killed 26 civilians and injured 60 and that there have been many other casualties in the southern city of Basra, which is surrounded by British troops. "The total figure, the accumulation of the victims in Basra governorate since the start of the criminal aggression against Iraq by the American and British invaders, the total figures are: wounded 659, martyred 116," al-Sahhaf said.
Coalition officials had a very different version of events in Basra.
British military spokesmen said today Iraqi troops used mortars and machine guns to fire on at least one group of civilians trying to flee the fighting and the humanitarian crisis in the city, where water and electricity have been in short supply.
They said some civilians had to turn back and that one woman was seriously injured.
Al Lockwood, the main spokesman for British forces in Qatar, said British troops tried to intervene once the paramilitaries launched their attack.
Today's renewed bombing and clashes came amid warnings by top U.S. and British officials that the war will be long and tough.
The comments came in two separate interviews with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Lieutenant General William Wallace, the U.S. Army's senior ground commander in Iraq.
Blair told the BBC that much has been achieved so far in the war. But he said the war will have "tough and difficult moments" and that it will take time to pry the Iraqi leader's grip off the country.
Wallace told "The Washington Post" that stiff Iraqi resistance and stretched supply lines to coalition troops have stalled the U.S.-led drive toward Baghdad and made a longer war more likely.
Wallace also said the Iraqi irregulars fighting guerrilla-style tactics are not what the United States had expected. He said "the enemy we're fighting is different" from the one that U.S. troops had practiced war games against.
Questioned about the reports, Central Command's Brooks said the war is still going according to plan. "We believe that we are still consistent with our plan in how we designed it. There will always be things that occur on the battlefield that are not precisely as you calculated them in your design. The strength of a plan is the ability to adapt it to the realities of the circumstance while still remaining focused on what it is we seek to do," Brooks said.
Hennig Riecke, a security and defense analyst at Germany's Council on Foreign Relations, said the prospect of a war running into weeks should surprise no one, except, perhaps, for a few impatient media commentators.
What has appeared to have surprised the military planners, he said, is the extent of the Iraqi resistance, as well as the irregulars, i.e., combatants fighting sometimes in civilian clothing. "What surprised people is that there's a lot of fierce resistance, a long way even before they come to Baghdad. I think they had the impression that only in Baghdad would be the special forces, the Republican Guards that are better trained. They expected that in Baghdad there would be defense based not only on fear but on loyalty and a defense that is conducted by much better-equipped and better-trained soldiers," Riecke said.
Also today, the war drew large protests across Asia and the Middle East in countries from Egypt to Indonesia. Tens of thousands of Iranians marched in Tehran to chants of both "Death to America" and "Death to Saddam." Iran's government has vowed to remain neutral in the conflict.
In one welcome bit of news today, the first British aid ship finally docked at Umm Qasr, bringing with it hundreds of tons of food, medicine, and water. The "Sir Galahad" had been delayed due to the danger of mines in the southern port.