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Iraq: Bombs Strike Baghdad, U.S. Forces In Fierce Fight At Nasiriya

Washington, 29 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. and British forces have used their most powerful bombs against Iraq's capital, while American troops have been involved in a fierce firefight outside the strategic central city of Nasiriya.

Two new elements came into the mix on 28 March -- Iraq's neighbors, Syria and Iran. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned both countries not to further complicate the task already faced by coalition forces of ousting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

U.S. Marines have been exchanging artillery fire with Iraqi units outside Nasiriyah, an important city on the Euphrates River that lies on the allied path to Baghdad. U.S. helicopter gunships also pounded Iraqi positions outside the city of a half-million people. Coalition forces also have kept up the daily bombardment of Baghdad.

In yesterday's assaults, for the first time the Americans and British used what are called bunker-buster bombs, each carrying nearly 800 kilograms of explosives. Their sheer power is meant to damage underground enemy hideouts. The use of the bunker-busters resumed early this morning in Baghdad.

Other allied bombings, meanwhile, have been targeting positions of Hussein's elite Republican Guard, who are forming a defensive ring around Baghdad.

Again, Iraq's government accused the United States and Britain of deliberately killing civilians. In Baghdad, Information Minister Muhammad Said al-Shahhaf said the death toll was rising among Iraqi noncombatants.

"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.

In the south, meanwhile, British forces are continuing their siege of Basra, Iraq's second-largest city. It is now controlled by Saddam's Fedayeen. A group of about 1,000 civilians at one point managed to escape the city, and received food and medical attention. A British military spokeswoman says a second group of about the same size tried to escape yesterday, but they were driven back when Iraqi troops fired on them with machine guns and mortars.

It was against this background that Rumsfeld gave his warnings to Syria and Iran.

Speaking yesterday at a Pentagon briefing, Rumsfeld announced that military equipment is being imported into Iraq from Syria, and that he is holding the Syrian government responsible for such shipments, which he characterized as "hostile acts."

"We have information that shipments of military supplies have been crossing the border from Syria into Iraq, including night-vision goggles. These deliveries pose a direct threat to the lives of coalition forces. We consider such trafficking as hostile acts and will hold the Syrian government accountable for such shipments," he said.

Rumsfeld added that the equipment includes night-vision goggles, gear that could put U.S. and British troops at risk in battle. He such behavior "vastly complicates" the coalition's mission in Iraq, but he declined to comment immediately on what the response might be. In Damascus, Syrian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Bouthaine Shaban called Rumsfeld's statement "unfounded and irresponsible."

The defense secretary also urged Iran not to support friendly Iraqi forces while coalition forces are active in the country. He specifically cited the Badr Corps, an Iranian-backed Iraqi unit that opposes Hussein.

"The Badr Corps is trained, equipped, and directed by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard and we will hold the Iranian government responsible for their actions and will view Badr Corps activity inside Iraq as unhelpful. Armed Badr Corps members found in Iraq will have to be treated as combatants," Rumsfeld said.

Rumsfeld said the involvement of any Iranian military or intelligence personnel, or any proxy forces, in any area of conflict in Iraq would be taken as what he called a "potential threat" to U.S. and British forces operating there.

The defense secretary also joined in a chorus of U.S. officials, including President George W. Bush, who insisted that allied war planners have not had to adjust their battle scenarios because of an unexpected level of Iraqi resistance.

U.S. Lieutenant General William Wallace, the senior ground commander for the war, told reporters on 27 March that the war probably will be longer than military planners had forecast. His comments reportedly angered Bush administration officials.

There are now about 120,000 coalition troops in Iraq or in Kuwait awaiting movement into Iraq. The United States had planned to bring in about 100,000 more eventually. Their deployment is now being accelerated, and these fresh forces will be in the war area by the end of April. Still, Rumsfeld said the war was going largely according to plan.

Bush, addressing a group of military veterans yesterday at the White House, said he has no concern about the progress of the war, now that allied forces have weakened Hussein's grip on much of the country.

"The regime that once terrorized all of Iraq now controls a small portion of that country. Coalition troops continue their steady advance and are drawing near to Baghdad. We are inflicting severe damage on enemy forces," Bush said.

Meanwhile, the British ship "Sir Galahad" finally docked in Umm Qasr, the Iraqi port city on the Persian Gulf. It is carrying tons of fresh water, rice, beans, and other foods. The vessel could not reach the city until yesterday because U.S. and British forces first had to clear the port of Iraqi mines.