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Iraq: Coalition Forces Advance Toward Baghdad

Prague, 2 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. forces today accelerated their advance toward Baghdad, launching coordinating attacks on the southeastern and western approaches to the capital, while warplanes bombed Iraqi positions in the capital itself and in the north of Iraq.

In the southeast, troops secured a bridge over the Tigris River and took control of the main road from the town of Kut to Baghdad.

In the west, U.S. forces encircled the city of Karbala, securing all major exit routes, and are advancing further north.

In Baghdad, warplanes bombed a presidential compound where Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's son Qusay has had his headquarters. The air assault also targeted command, communication, and other military facilities.

Warplanes also hit Iraqi positions in the north, in the area near Mosul.

Helicopters and fighter planes attacked Saddam's Fedayeen militia in and around the central city of Najaf.

In another development, U.S. troops rescued an American prisoner of war, Jessica Lynch, who had spent nine days in Iraqi hands.

Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein yesterday had his information minister make a televised statement on his behalf urging Iraqis to resist American and British troops. U.S. officials have questioned whether Hussein was killed or badly injured in the first hours of the war.

The Pentagon says the Republican Guard's Medina Division is now below 50 percent of its original strength. It says the guard's Baghdad Division near Kut, southeast of the capital, has been similarly degraded by U.S. air assaults.

American forces also took control of an air base near Kut that could be uses to stage further attacks in the area.

Heavy fighting was reported to the south of the capital in and around the city of Diwaniyah, where the Americans took around 40 prisoners and killed 75 Iraqi soldiers. There were no immediate reports of U.S. casualties.

In southern Iraq, British forces have been keeping up the siege of Basra, the country's second-largest city with a population of 1.3 million that is still controlled by Iraqi paramilitary troops.

But a British military spokesman, Group Captain Al Lockwood, told reporters yesterday at coalition headquarters in the Gulf state of Qatar that there is growing evidence that the civilian residents of Basra are beginning to resist the Iraqi forces.

British troops now have complete control of Iraq's Gulf port city of Umm Qasr, near Basra. Lockwood described the ambience in Umm Qasr and nearby Az Zubayr this way: "Normality is coming back. Shops are opening, bakeries are opening, schools are opening. The electricity was turned on in Umm Qasr last night. Normality is approaching and the people now are beginning to realize that we're here to liberate them, not to occupy them."

Not all civilians are so sanguine about the presence of the Anglo-American coalition, however, especially after U.S. troops in southern Iraq opened fire on a van that would not stop at a traffic checkpoint. It turned out that the van was filled with women and children trying to flee the fighting, and at least seven were killed.

The soldiers who opened fire were operating under new, stricter rules of engagement because of an attack on 29 March in which an Iraqi soldier dressed as a civilian detonated a car bomb at a similar checkpoint, killing four American servicemen.

At the war's operational headquarters in Qatar, U.S. Major General Vincent Brooks expressed sorrow for the deaths, but said it is important for allied troops to be careful about vehicles at checkpoints because of Saturday's incident and other tactics that he said Iraqis have been using.

"Our efforts may result in the loss of lives, civilian [lives], and they clearly will result in the loss of Iraqi military lives, and there is no doubt about that. While we regret the loss of any civilian lives, at this point they remain unavoidable as they have been throughout history."

The war appears to be leaving Iraqi civilians caught without reasonable options about whom to support in order to save their lives. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a Pentagon press briefing yesterday that he believes the vast majority of Iraqis do not support Hussein, but obey him and his subordinates out of fear.

Rumsfeld said fear is beginning to erode, but he stressed that it is too early to expect a group of Iraqis to rise up, even if coalition forces defeat Hussein's forces in their region.

"You could take out [eliminate] the Republican Guard division, and if somebody's still got a gun to their head, they're darn well not going to -- very likely not going to decide that it's time to have an uprising. It'll happen, be patient, that country will be freed and liberated."

In fact, there has been no evidence in the past week that there is even a Hussein to lead Iraq's military. Most recently, yesterday, he issued a statement that his information minister, Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf, read on Iraqi television.

The statement urged Iraqis to continue their struggle against British and U.S. forces, and promised heaven for those who die in the fight.

Rumsfeld said it was odd that Hussein did not deliver the statement himself, but added that he has no idea whether Hussein is alive or dead. Even if the Iraqi leader were dead, he said, there are still other members of his government who can manage the country and its military infrastructure.

But Rumsfeld said he also expects that Hussein's control would be stronger than that of his subordinates.

The White House, too, expressed puzzlement that Hussein himself did not address the Iraqi people. Speaking with reporters yesterday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said: "Members of the administration have said when asked is Saddam alive, 'we don't know,' because we do not know. The fact that he failed to show up for his scheduled appearance today raises additional questions. But I think it's also fair to say, given the fact that we don't know if he's alive or not, when the president refers, or other people in the administration refer to Saddam Hussein this or Saddam Hussein that, it's almost now a generalized term for the Iraqi regime because we don't know if he's alive or dead."

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Prince Saud, suggested that it would be best for the Iraqi people if Hussein made the sacrifice of stepping down and ending the war. Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan rejected the idea and told the prince to "go to hell."

There also were reports that the United States was negotiating some sort of peace deal with certain elements of the Iraqi government. Rumsfeld was equally emphatic in discounting that idea.

"There are no negotiations taking place with anyone in the Saddam Hussein regime. There will be no outcome to this war that leaves Saddam Hussein and his regime in power. Let there be no doubt: His time will end, and soon. The only thing that the coalition will discuss with this regime is their unconditional surrender."

As the two sides exchanged fire and propaganda, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was in Turkey, Iraq's neighbor to the north, to discuss the war -- and keeping Turkish forces out of it. The government in Ankara has granted overflight rights to allied planes, but has refused to let its territory be used as a staging point for a northern front against Baghdad.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said yesterday that Powell wants to thank Turkey for keeping its promise not to send its own forces into northern Iraq. The United States fears clashes might erupt between Turkish troops and ethnic Kurds in the region.

Today Powell flies to Belgrade to meet with Svetozar Marovic, the president of Serbia and Montenegro, and with Zoran Zivkovic, Serbia's new prime minister, as well as with other officials. The secretary is expected to convey U.S. support for the federation's struggle against organized crime, war criminals, and political extremism.

Powell is scheduled tomorrow to meet in Brussels with foreign ministers from countries in the European Union and the NATO as well as with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.

Both the EU and NATO are split on the war in Iraq, and Russia has been outspoken against the conflict.