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Iraq: Early-Morning Bombing of Baghdad; Saddam, Sons Rumored To Be Dead

Prague, 8 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. forces today mounted an intense early-morning bombardment of an area in central Baghdad that houses a number of Iraqi government ministries and other official buildings.

Live television footage showed U.S. aircraft dropping bombs in the area. U.S. tanks, meanwhile, advanced from the west side of the city, where U.S. forces are concentrated, onto one of the main bridges spanning the Tigris River. One of them fired at buildings on the opposite bank.

For the first time since U.S. forces entered Baghdad, a contingent of troops spent last night in the city center, encamped on the grounds of the sprawling main presidential palace, on the west bank of the Tigris. Fighting is reported to be continuing in the area for a second day running.

In another development, the U.S. military says an important "leadership target" was bombed yesterday afternoon in the Iraqi capital. Major Brad Bartlett, a spokesman at U.S. Central Command war headquarters in Qatar, told reporters this morning that a B-1B bomber dropped four 900-kilogram bombs on a residential compound in the upscale Mansur neighborhood, known as a Ba'ath Party stronghold. Correspondents said at least three buildings were destroyed in the attack. The bombing left an 18-meter-deep crater and a heap of concrete, mangled iron rods and shredded furniture and clothes at the scene.

News agencies quote unnamed U.S. Defense Department officials as saying the raid came after U.S. intelligence received information that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and his sons might be in the building. Bartlett said a precise damage assessment was under way and he declined to comment on the alleged intelligence report.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, speaking late yesterday from Washington, told Iraq's people that the end of Hussein's regime was at hand. "Let me assure all Iraqis listening today that life without Saddam Hussein is not a distant dream. Coalition forces will not stop until they have accomplished their mission and they will remove Saddam Hussein from power and give Iraq back to the Iraqi people," Rumsfeld said.

Arabic satellite television station Al-Jazeera reports that one of its correspondents was killed this morning in a U.S. raid which hit the station's bureau. A second Al-Jazeera correspondent was reported wounded in the attack.

Iraq's domestic state television went off the air in Baghdad this morning after failing to broadcast the morning news bulletin.

In southern Iraq, British forces have taken effective control of Basra, the country's second-largest city. The commander of British forces in the Persian Gulf, Air Marshal Brian Burridge, told a press briefing in Qatar yesterday that British forces are focusing on reestablishing civilian institutions in the region as quickly as possible.

"Our forces are already patrolling the streets of Umm Qasr, Safwan, and Zubayr in berets rather than helmets. We have schools opening, we turned the lights on in Umm Qasr for the first time in many, many months. Overall, our troops are doing what British troops do best -- giving the Iraqi people confidence," Burridge said.

In northern Iraq, meanwhile, Kurdish forces aided by U.S. special forces draw closer to the two strategic cities of Mosul and Kirkuk.

On the diplomatic front, U.S. President George W. Bush is due to continue talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair near Belfast today. The two leaders, who held a working dinner at Hillsborough Castle yesterday evening, are due to discuss what now appears to be the end game in the war as well as the shape of Iraq's postwar administration.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, traveling with Bush, said yesterday that the United States believes that it and Britain should be in charge of postwar Iraq because their armed forces have "paid the costs in lives." He has previously noted that they also are bearing the economic expense as well as the political cost, given that many other countries oppose the decision to go to war.

But Blair is expected to urge Bush to share the postwar responsibilities with other nations, to help heal a rift that has developed with several European nations.

The British leader also is likely to press for a large role for the United Nations. So far, the Bush administration has indicated that the UN should be limited to overseeing humanitarian issues.