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Iraq: Coalition Troops Storm Baghdad, March Into Basra

Prague, 7 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. troops are in the heart of Baghdad today, where they raided Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's main palace compound and other key sites. In the south, British troops say they marched unopposed into the center of Iraq's second city, Basra.

Today's U.S. attack on Baghdad has been described as a show of force rather than a final assault to take the capital. But a Central Command spokesman said commanders on the ground will decide whether to stay in captured areas.

Brigadier General Vincent Brooks said the Iraqi regime is now no longer in control of all of the capital.

"A second attack into the heart of Baghdad to key regime locations -- destroying any defending forces while protecting the civilian population and the city's infrastructure -- reinforces the reality that the regime is not in control of all of the major city."

Some 100 U.S. armored vehicles, including up to 70 tanks, took part in today's attack on Baghdad, the biggest incursion yet into Baghdad in the 19-day-old war.

Iraqi troops resisted, blocking bridges across the Tigris River and defending key ministries. At least two U.S. soldiers and two journalists were killed in the south of the city as Iraqis fought back.

From the southeast, U.S. Marines advanced into the city limits by crossing a tributary of the Tigris. Two were killed in what appeared to be a "friendly fire" incident.

The U.S. military says it now has checkpoints at all major roads into Baghdad to stop military movement.

Live television pictures showed U.S. tanks and soldiers on Baghdad's parade grounds in an administrative area on the west bank of the Tigris. They also showed U.S. soldiers roaming through the main presidential complex.

Just two kilometers away, across the Tigris, Iraqi Information Minister Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf appeared on a hotel roof to hold an impromptu press conference. He said people should not believe U.S. claims.

"The [U.S. forces] have no control, even of themselves. Don't believe them. Those invaders will be slaughtered."

RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz is embedded with troops from the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division at Baghdad's international airport. He says today's incursion is part of a three-pronged attack on the capital, with U.S. troops already clearing the northern part of the city.

"I myself was able, in the last 24 hours, to drive on the ring roads around Baghdad from the southeast side all the way around the western side and up to the northwestern side and up to the north," he said. "When we got to the northern side, there was intense fighting. I saw more than a dozen T-72 Iraqi tanks destroyed, as well as dozens of civilian cars and dozens of prisoners being taken. It was a very bloody battle there."

In the south, British officials say they are now in control of most of Al-Basrah. But they say they are facing pockets of resistance and that it may take several more days to establish full control. British Defense Minister Geoffrey Hoon said British forces are in Basra "to stay."

RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel is on the outskirts of Al-Basrah where he said British infantry today "is advancing cautiously along the main road from the south into the city. As they move slowly -- setting up firing positions, then deploying forward -- it remains uncertain how much of the city they will occupy today. For now, they have moved with armor into the city center while the infantry secures roads in the rear but is staying out of residential neighborhoods."

Also in the south, another British spokesman said troops have found the body of the top Iraqi military commander known as "Chemical Ali."

Spokesman Major Andrew Jackson said Ali Hassan al-Majid's body was found in Basra. Al-Majid, a cousin of Saddam Hussein, was dubbed "Chemical Ali" for ordering a poison gas attack in 1988 that killed several thousand Kurds.

Hoon later said he was unable to confirm the reports, though he said there are "strong indications" they are correct.

In the north, Radio Free Iraq correspondent Sami Shoresh reports that Mosul came under heavy bombardment today.

He says, "It seems there are two 'hot spots' on that front line now. The first is in Shaykhan, a large town close to Mosul. Residents there are Kurds, Arabs, Christians, and Yazidis. This town is now under the control of Kurdish fighters. The second is in Faidah, which is located on the road between Dohuk and Mosul. It seems that fighting is continuing there, and American planes are heavily bombing positions held by Iraqi troops as well as targets inside Mosul itself."

Shoresh was in a convoy of Kurdish fighters and U.S. special forces that was hit by U.S. warplanes in a "friendly fire" incident yesterday. At least 18 people were killed and at least 45 others injured, including the brother and son of Kurdish leader Mas'ud Barzani.

Another convoy -- this one carrying Russia's ambassador to Iraq -- came under fire as it left Baghdad yesterday in what some Russian officials said was a deliberate attack by U.S. forces. But Brooks said today they have no information that U.S. forces were involved in the incident.

"We have received reports, as many of you have heard, that there was some sort of exchange of gunfire that hit part of the [Russian ambassador's] convoy as it moved. What we don't have is anything that would confirm the role of U.S. forces in that."

On the political front, U.S. President George W. Bush is arriving in Northern Ireland today to meet British Prime Minister Tony Blair for talks on plans for a post-Hussein Iraq.

The two agree on the broad outlines of a three-stage procedure for running Iraq. But there are still disagreements on the role the United Nations should play.

Three bomb alerts were issued in and around Belfast's two airports ahead of Bush's arrival today after police received anonymous threats.