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Iraq: U.S., British Maintain Iraq Assault Amid Reports Advance Slowing

Baghdad, 30 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. and British forces pressed ahead today with the war in Iraq amid conflicting reports over how the war would be conducted in the coming days and weeks.

A massive series of explosions were heard in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, this afternoon local time as coalition warplanes maintained their air assault on the city.

It wasn't immediately clear what was being targeted, but the U.S. military said earlier that it was focusing on Saddam Hussein's presidential palaces, intelligence and information facilities, and paramilitary training sites. Explosions were heard throughout the night and early this morning.

South and west of Baghdad, U.S. army troops appeared to be maintaining their advance on Baghdad. Our correspondent reports that units attached the U.S. Army's Third Infantry were engaging Iraqi Republican Guard forces near the city of Karbala.

"The U.S. army's Third Infantry Division has advanced further north in Iraq today, moving combat teams to positions around the outskirts of the city of Karbala. The advance follows two days of intensive air strikes against armored units of Iraq's Republican Guard that have been moved to Karbala from Baghdad during the past week."

In fighting near the southern city of Al-Basrah today, British Royal Marine commandos reportedly captured an Iraqi general and killed another senior officer in clashes with Iraqi paramilitaries.

But the Iraqi information minister today said Iraqi forces had downed a U.S. helicopter yesterday near Al-Basrah, killing its crew of two. Information Minister Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf:

"Yesterday, the fighters of the Iraqi tribes with other fighters of our people, they shot down an [U.S.] Apache helicopter and killed the two pilots. Another Apache [escaped]. And they buried there the two pilots."

The Pentagon later said that none of its aircraft was missing.

In the north, reports said blasts could be heard near the city of Kirkuk.

The fighting is taking place amid a flurry of media reports suggesting the U.S. may be slowing its advance on Baghdad to allow coalition reinforcements to secure supply lines that stretch back from the front lines near Karbala all the way to Kuwait.

But U.S. officials were quick to deny that any pause in the assault was being contemplated.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, appearing on American television (ABC), said categorically that the United States has "no plans for pauses or cease-fires."

Earlier in the day, the commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, U.S. General Tommy Franks, said the war in Iraq is going according to plan and that progress to date had been "remarkable."

"This campaign has made remarkable progress. Lots remains to be done. The days ahead will see ups and downs, the ups and downs of war. We don't need to remind ourselves that the outcome has not been, is not and will not be in question."

He told reporters at a briefing in Qatar that coalition forces had pushed to within 95 kms of Baghdad and had secured oil fields in southern Iraq.

However, he appeared to dodge questions from reporters asking whether the war could last into summer. Franks said only that he could not predict when the war would end.

Franks also confirmed reports that a number of U.S. troops were injured today when a truck drove into a group of soldiers outside a U.S. military base in Kuwait.

A U.S. statement later said a small truck outside of Camp Udairi had run into a group of soldiers outside the facility, injuring "10 to 15" of them.

There were no further details, but Franks said he did not believe the incident was similar to an Iraqi suicide bombing yesterday in central Iraq that left four U.S. soldiers dead.

Meanwhile, protests against the war continued around the world.

In Pakistan, police say more than 250,000 people gathered in the northern city of Peshawar to protest the war. Around 200,000 people marched through the streets of the Moroccan capital of Rabat, denouncing what they called "imperialist aggression" against Iraq.

More than 150,000 people marched peacefully through India's eastern city of Calcutta. In the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, some 100,000 people took to the streets.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.