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Iraq: Coalition Forces Move Closer To Baghdad

Prague, 31 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Fighting south of Baghdad, air strikes on the capital, and defiant talk from the Iraqi leadership -- another typical day in the war in Iraq.

Today's air raids on the capital targeted the Information Ministry and a palace compound belonging to either Saddam Hussein or his son Qusay. The raids knocked state television off the air for several hours.

U.S.-led forces advancing on Baghdad battled Iraqi paramilitary fighters or elite Republican Guards in several firefights south of the capital. One U.S. soldier was reported killed, but U.S.-led forces said they killed or captured dozens of Iraqi troops.

One of the biggest clashes was at Hindiya, the closest point yet in the advance on Baghdad. There U.S. troops have been fighting for control of a bridge across the Euphrates.

At Shatra, further east, U.S. forces staged a dawn raid in search of the man known as Chemical Ali, Ali Hassan al-Majid, who oversaw the use of poison gas against Kurds in 1988.

There was no word on any significant captures. But near Nasiriyah, U.S. forces said they seized a large cache including chemical-decontamination equipment.

U.S. Brigadier General Vincent Brooks gave details at a briefing today in Qatar: "Near Talil Airfield, southwest of Nasiriyah, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force seized a large weapons cache, about 40 buildings' worth, containing ammunition, chemical-decontamination equipment, and that includes a Samara decontamination vehicle, chemical suits, and unidentified artillery munitions."

Brooks also said that Iraqis have been helping coalition forces by giving them information. "We remain convinced from what we are seeing throughout the country, as we are having more and more success, that the Iraqi people are welcoming the departure of the regime and its destruction," he said.

But Iraqi Foreign minister Naji Sabri said the U.S. and Britain are deluded in thinking they could divide and conquer Iraq. He said Iraq will turn into a "graveyard" for American and British soldiers. And he dismissed coalition claims that the war is about liberation, not conquest. He branded them colonialists.

"The Anglo-American colonialists and warlords have deluded themselves into believing what they have been wishing for Iraq. As colonialists, they wish that Iraq is divided, that Iraq is not a unified body -- these are their wishes," Sabri said.

Sabri also said more than 5,000 Arab volunteers "from all Arab countries" have now arrived in Iraq to fight against U.S.-led forces. That follows comments yesterday by Iraqi General Hazem al-Rawi, who said some 4,000 volunteers were ready to follow in the footsteps of an Iraqi who killed four U.S. soldiers in a weekend suicide attack in southern Iraq.

In the south, British forces today continued their assault on a suburb of the second city of Basra.

British troops yesterday secured the village of Abu al-Qassib outside the city and captured five Iraqi officers. It was initially thought an Iraqi general was among those captured, but British officials today said this is not the case.

British troops suffered an unknown number of injuries during the operation, some serious, and one soldier was killed in an ambush further south on the Al-Faw Peninsula

On the humanitarian front, the United Nations food aid agency said it hopes it can avert a major crisis in feeding the people of Iraq. James Morris, the executive director of the UN World Food Program (WFP), said they have enough supplies to meet people's needs.

The WFP has appealed for $1.3 billion to fund a vast food aid operation in response to the Iraq war. This is part of an overall $2.2 billion appeal for humanitarian assistance for Iraq in the next six months launched by the United Nations last week.