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Iraq: Fierce Battles Reported Near Baghdad, Najaf In South

Prague, 31 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. and British ground forces are today engaged in heavy fighting with Iraqi forces in a number of locations. House-to-house fighting was reported at Al-Hindyah, a key Euphrates River crossing about 80 kilometers south of Baghdad. U.S. soldiers later took the town center, but Iraqi forces on the east side of the river continued firing.

Farther south, intense fighting continued around the Shi'ite Muslim holy city of Najaf as U.S. Army forces advanced on the city from the north and south. Two U.S. soldiers were reported killed.

In the south, hundreds of Iraqis shouting "Welcome to Iraq" greeted U.S. Marines who entered the town of Shatra after fierce fighting.

U.S. Army Brigadier General Vincent Brooks at military headquarters in Doha, Qatar, today spoke of other fighting. "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 said.

Brooks also said that Iraqi civilians are welcoming the fading of President Saddam Hussein's regime. But British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon acknowledged today in London that no senior politican or military commander in Iraq has defected.

Iraqi state television showed brief footage of President Saddam Hussein meeting both his two sons and military commanders. But it was not clear when the footage was taken.

In the air war, repeated air raids pounded Baghdad, targeting key government buildings in the city center and positions on the outskirts of the Iraqi capital. Kirkuk in the north was also bombed.