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Iraq: Major Advances Reported In U.S.-Led Push On Baghdad

Prague, 2 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- There are reports of a major development in the U.S.-led push toward Baghdad today, with U.S. troops saying they have made key advances on two fronts.

U.S. Marines reportedly crossed the Tigris River in the country's east near Kut today and took control of the main Highway 6 to Baghdad.

Those reports coincide with another advance farther west, this time from Karbala, about 80 kilometers south of the capital. Karbala was the scene of a major ground battle early today between U.S. troops and soldiers from Iraq's Republican Guard.

The two moves open the way for a possible coalition assault on Baghdad, which came under renewed bombing again today.

Australian Defense Minister Robert Hill said the decisive moment in the two-week-long war has now arrived.

If this is the beginning of the final assault on Baghdad, Iraqi officials have vowed the capital will put up tough resistance.

Iraqi Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmad said yesterday: "The enemy has information about our positions, our stations, especially now that we have been engaged with the enemy in certain battles for 13 days. This is the reason why the enemy knows that whenever he tries to approach Baghdad, the price will be a heavy one."

Ahmad's comments followed a statement read on Iraqi television yesterday that were said to be from Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. In the message, Hussein called for holy war against British and U.S. troops: "Fight them. Victory is within our reach.... We have used only one-third of our army, or even less, while the criminals have used up all of the forces they brought to commit aggression against Iraq. Their failure is evident and, God willing, we shall be victorious."

U.S. commanders say they do not know if Hussein is alive or dead following the hundreds of air strikes that have pounded the Iraqi capital since 20 March. Both Washington and London say the fact that Hussein has not appeared recently on television raises questions about his fate.

Iraqi officials dismiss any suggestion that Hussein may be dead or injured. State television regularly shows him meeting with his inner circle. But it is not known if the footage was prerecorded.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld yesterday accused Iraq of spreading rumors that the coalition is holding cease-fire talks with Iraqi leaders. "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 [Hussein's] time will end, and soon. The only thing that the coalition will discuss with this regime is their unconditional surrender," Rumsfeld said.

There was a boost to coalition morale earlier today with the rescue of female American prisoner of war in a raid on a hospital in Nasiriyah. U.S. Brigadier General Vincent Brooks made the brief announcement at Central Command in Qatar: "Coalition forces have conducted a successful rescue mission of a U.S. Army prisoner of war held captive in Iraq. The soldier has been returned to a coalition-controlled area."

Officials later named the soldier as 19-year-old Jessica Lynch, one of 15 soldiers listed as missing, captured, or killed when their convoy was ambushed a week ago. The bodies of two other U.S. soldiers were recovered during the midnight raid.

It was positive news for the coalition after reports of civilian casualties dominated headlines yesterday.

An Iraqi man in Hilla, south of Baghdad, said 11 members of his family were killed by a rocket fired from a U.S. helicopter yesterday. They were among 33 people reported to have been killed in a coalition bombing raid on the town.

A spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross described the "horror" at the local hospital and said, "There were dozens of smashed corpses."

U.S. Central Command said it is investigating the report but "has not turned up any evidence of this alleged incident."

In an incident on 31 March, seven women and children were killed in a U.S. checkpoint shooting after the car they were traveling in failed to heed warnings to stop.

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Meyers, yesterday expressed regret about the incident, calling the loss of any innocent life "tragic." The U.S. military linked the behavior of the soldiers at the checkpoint to uneasiness after a suicide car bombing that killed four U.S. troops in the same area on 29 March.

In other war-related news, the British Defense Ministry said today that it mounted an "extraction operation" to remove British troops in the north of Iraq.

Details are scarce, but the comments came after Iraq claimed yesterday to have thwarted a landing by British troops in the north -- the first mention of any such operation.