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Iraq: U.S. Forces Have First Engagement With Republican Guard

Washington, 1 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. military says U.S. ground forces have been waging their first fights with units of Iraq's Republican Guard just south of Baghdad, while coalition aircraft have been helping Kurdish rebels push back Iraqi troops.

In the United States, meanwhile, President George W. Bush says his coalition is gradually nearing its goal of ending the rule of Saddam Hussein.

Units of the U.S. Army mounted a raid at dawn yesterday on Hindiyah, a city of 80,000 people about 80 kilometers south of the Iraqi capital. The city is important for the allied move to Baghdad. Their goal at Hindiyah is to pave the way for securing an important nearby bridge over the Euphrates River.

Members of Saddam's elite Republican Guard have been fighting back with small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades, but the Americans have seized enough of the city to capture a small Iraqi military weapons storehouse. The Americans found even more weapons -- tons of them -- at the local headquarters of the ruling Ba'ath Party.

U.S. troops also were involved in what turned out to be a tragic incident. U.S. soldiers opened fire on a van at a checkpoint, killing seven Iraqi women and children. Military officials said the soldiers were following new rules for vehicles at checkpoints. They were issued after an Iraqi soldier dressed as a civilian detonated a car bomb on the night of 29 March that killed four U.S. servicemen.

In northern Iraq, U.S. warplanes pounded Iraqi positions near Kalak, helping rebel Kurds dislocate Iraqi troops -- and securing a staging point for the coalition's northern front against Baghdad.

The past few days have been a time of heavy bombing, according to the Pentagon. It says 3,000 bombs were used against Iraqi positions during the weekend, and a total of 8,000 bombs have been used throughout the campaign so far.

Iraq says this show of firepower will not help the allies. Foreign Minister Naji Sabri told reporters yesterday in Baghdad that the U.S. and British governments have "deluded themselves" into believing that the Iraqi people will welcome them. Instead, he said, Iraq will be the invaders' graveyard.

U.S. military officials acknowledge that Iraqis are unsure of how to view the U.S. and British forces. In Doha, Qatar, where the war is being directed, U.S. Brigadier General Vincent Brooks said yesterday at a press briefing: "There is, truthfully, still a degree of 'let's wait and see' [from Iraqi civilians]. We have to understand that for decades, these people have been severely brutalized by this regime, and they have taken risks before that have not proven to be safe for them to do so, and so, there's a degree of caution still that's out there and is entirely understandable."

U.S. and British officials are continuing to insist that their drive toward Baghdad has not been unduly slowed by unexpected resistance from some Iraqi forces. British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon told Parliament yesterday that the U.S.-British coalition's biggest hurdle so far has been the apparent overconfidence of some military observers.

"Much of the problem has been caused, frankly, by commentators suggesting that this would be a very short conflict, in which there would be little or no resistance, but as I indicated to the House at the start of the military operation, in the very first statement that I made to the House of Commons, this was always likely to be a difficult, demanding and indeed dangerous conflict," Hoon said.

As they have for the past week, U.S. officials said yesterday that the outcome of the war is certain, even if tough fighting remains before the allied forces reach their goal of toppling Saddam.

Speaking to U.S. Coast Guard personnel in Philadelphia, Bush declared that since the war began on 20 March, U.S. and British forces have taken control of much of southern and western Iraq, seized important river crossings, opened the northern front to fight alongside the Kurdish resistance, and have begun delivering tons of humanitarian aid.

Bush added, "Many dangers lie ahead, but day by day we are moving closer to Baghdad, day by day we are moving closer to victory."

During yesterday's press briefing at the Pentagon, one of America's war planners supported that view, saying the weekend's heavy bombings were focused on the Republican Guard positions around Baghdad, particularly those to the south of the capital.

Major General McChrystal told reporters that the bombing severely degraded some Republican Guard units. He said they had not been wiped out, but their ability to fight has been badly reduced.

"Once you start to take a certain percentage of a force like that down, particularly a mechanized or armored force, the systems start to break down, the resupply systems, the maintenance systems, all of the things -- command and control that go together. So it doesn't always require you to go down to zero percentage [of enemy force remaining] to take a unit to a point where it's not very combat-effective if you can break those systems," McChrystal said.

Lately, U.S. officials again have been questioning whether Saddam Hussein is actually in control of his military. At the start of the war, a U.S. missile struck a site where Hussein was believed to be staying. Since then, two videotapes of the Iraqi leader have been shown, but there is no strong evidence that he is alive.

Yesterday, at the Pentagon briefing with McChrystal, chief U.S. Defense Department spokeswoman Victoria Clarke raised the question of who was really in control of Iraq. "I know if I were an Iraqi citizen, I'd be saying, 'Huh, look at what's been going on here for the last 10 days, or 12 days, and we haven't seen any of our leaders.' That's pretty extraordinary when you think about it," Clarke said.

In Baghdad, Foreign Minister Sabri dismissed such questions, saying the U.S.-British assault could not unseat his government. "The ability to function, to perform our function, is as usual. There is no effect on our ability to function. We shall continue to function as usual even if this aggression continues for years," Sabri said.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell flies to Turkey and Belgium.

In Turkey, Powell will discuss the conduct of the war. Turkey is permitting U.S. aircraft to use its airspace to bring troops and supplies into Iraq, but is not letting coalition forces use its military bases.

In Belgium, Powell will meet with officials of NATO and the European Union, which are both based in Brussels -- and both divided about the war in Iraq.