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Iraq: U.S.-Led Forces 'Destroy' Republican Guard Unit

Prague, 2 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S.-led troops have made key advances today on two fronts in a coordinated push toward Baghdad.

The advances follow fighting with elite Iraqi forces southeast and southwest of the capital and open the way for a possible coalition assault on Baghdad.

A U.S. spokesman, Brigadier General Vincent Brooks at Central Command in Qatar, said troops crossed the Tigris River near Kut and took control of the main Highway 6 to Baghdad, though Iraq denies this.

Brooks said U.S. troops "destroyed" the Baghdad Division of the Republican Guard. "The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force attacked the [Iraqi Republican Guard] Baghdad Division near the town of al-Kut, and it has crossed the Tigris River. The Baghdad Division has been destroyed," Brooks said.

There were no reports of U.S. casualties.

Farther west, U.S. troops encircled Karbala, about 80 kilometers south of the capital, and are preparing to cross the Euphrates River, the last major natural obstacle standing between coalition forces and Baghdad.

The Republican Guard has four divisions guarding the main approaches to the capital. It has what are described as Iraq's best-trained soldiers.

But commanders said they have encountered only slight resistance from the Medina, Baghdad, and Nebuchadnezzar divisions, apparently weakened by more than a week of aerial bombardment.

The advances came as Baghdad and its outskirts were hit again by coalition air strikes today.

Today's advances are positive news for U.S.-led forces after reports of civilian casualties dominated headlines yesterday. U.S. strategy also has come under intense scrutiny in recent days, although top military officials say the war plan is on track.

Coalition officials today spoke of a "decisive moment" in the war. But 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."

After an initial quick push toward Baghdad, coalition forces have had to tackle pockets of resistance left in the wake of the advance.

Experts say coalition forces run similar risks in this new phase of the war. John Garnett chairs London's Centre for Defence Studies: "That's been the general policy: Don't go into the cities and fight -- street fighting, hand to hand, house to house -- because that's so destructive in terms of life and property, but to move on. But it does make you vulnerable to snipers and resistance from hard pockets within those cities."

Garnett said he doesn't think the coalition has enough forces around Baghdad to take the city yet. He said the coalition is likely to wait for a week or so until some of the 100,000 extra U.S. troops currently on their way arrive as reinforcements.

The question then, he said, will not be if the coalition can take Baghdad, but how. Garnett said street battles would be too costly politically, as well as in terms of civilian life. He said a longer campaign that strives to avoid casualties would be better. "That's the way I see it: surrounding Baghdad and having forays into the city [against regime targets], but not this hand-to-hand street fighting of the kind you got, for example, when we took Berlin at the end of the Second World War. That was so destructive, and I don't think world opinion would forgive us for that," Garnett said.

He said "winning the peace" would be much harder with Baghdad in ruins and after many innocent Iraqis had been killed.

In other war-related news today, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has been meeting with top officials in Turkey. He said there is no need for Turkey to send troops into northern Iraq because U.S. forces have brought the region "under control."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said coalition forces should hand over power to a new Iraqi government as soon as possible once Saddam Hussein's regime is overthrown.

Blair also accused the Iraqi regime of intending to damage holy sites with a view toward blaming the coalition. His comments follow claims by the U.S. military that coalition troops came under fire from the Ali Mosque in the southern city of Najaf, a revered shrine in Shi'ite Islam.