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Iraq: U.S. Forces Expanding Presence in Baghdad, Meeting Little Resistance

Prague, 8 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. military says coalition forces are increasing their presence in Baghdad and are meeting little organized resistance from Iraqi fighters.

A spokesman for the U.S. Central Command in Qatar, Captain Frank Thorp, said today that U.S. forces are occupying presidential palaces in the city center. Thorp said the operations send a clear message that "coalition forces are able to operate anywhere chosen."

But U.S. and Iraqi forces continue to trade fire. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz, embedded with U.S. forces, spoke to Major Pete Biagiatti of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division about his experiences today patrolling the streets of northern Baghdad in a Bradley fighting vehicle: "We ran into a lot of dismounted soldiers. The resistance was light. We had a lot of RPGs -- rocket-propelled grenades -- recoilless rifles fired at us. We destroyed those soldiers. Those that surrender, of course, we take them and process them as EPWs [enemy prisoners of war]. We did today capture several artillery pieces, along with several surface-to-air missiles that we definitely secured today as we continue to move in much more central to Baghdad proper."

Biagiatti said he and his men are taking care to avoid civilian casualties. But in the center of Baghdad today, two journalists -- one working for Reuters, the other a Spanish cameraman -- were killed and three others injured after the Palestine Hotel, which houses most of the foreign correspondents in Baghdad, was hit by a round from a U.S. tank.

U.S. General Buford Blount told reporters the tank fired after being engaged by small-arms and rocket-propelled-grenade fire from the building.

Earlier today, the Qatar-based Arabic television channel Al-Jazeera said one of its reporters was killed and another injured when the station's bureau was hit by a bomb during a U.S. air raid.

International aid agencies today warned that medical supplies in Baghdad are critically low and that hospitals are being stretched to the limit coping with wounded from fighting inside the Iraqi capital.

Nada Doumani, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, told a press briefing that Iraqi surgeons and medical staff are working around the clock and running low on medicines and surgical equipment, including anaesthetics. She said an overall count of civilian casualties has not been made. But Doumani said that at one Baghdad hospital she visited, 150 wounded had been brought in over the last 28 hours.

In other military developments, U.S. forces say they have captured the Rashid airfield in the southeast of the city and have also moved in toward the center of Baghdad from the north. There is still no confirmation on whether the strike of what U.S. commanders identified as a "leadership target" yesterday resulted in any casualties among the senior Iraqi leadership, including possibly Saddam Hussein himself.

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 Baghdad's 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.

On the diplomatic front, U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair held a second day of talks near Belfast today, during which they reviewed progress in the war and discussed the future administration of Iraq.

Speaking at a joint news conference afterward, Blair and Bush said their first priority is to set up an Interim Iraqi Authority (IIA) to administer the country in the initial period after the end of hostilities. "We will move as quickly as possible to place government responsibilities under the control of an [Iraqi] interim authority composed of Iraqis from both inside and outside the country. The interim authority will serve until a permanent government can be chosen by the Iraqi people," Bush said.

Bush said he believes the United Nations should play what he called a "vital role" in postwar Iraq. Asked by a reporter to define the meaning of the word "vital" in the postwar Iraqi context, the U.S. president emphasized the UN's humanitarian role: "That means food. That means medicine. That means aid. That means a place where people can give their contributions. That means suggesting people for the IIA. That means being a party to the progress being made in Iraq."

Blair and his ministers have repeatedly emphasized the need for the UN to play a major role in the country's postwar affairs.

Bush's statement will be seen as an effort by the White House to show it is listening to its key ally. But the U.S. administration has made it clear that it wants to play a key role in shaping Iraq's immediate future.

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

A U.S.-led civil administration team headed by retired U.S. General Jay Garner is already assembled in neighboring Kuwait. Part of that team is due to deploy to the southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr later today to assess humanitarian and reconstruction needs.

In nearby Basra, British forces say they are consolidating their control over Iraq's second-largest city. British military spokesman Colonel Chris Vernon told reporters today that local reception to the British troops has been positive. "The entrance of the British troops [into Basra] was met with enthusiasm by the local civilian population, finally showing the belief that the liberation from oppression had come and, day-on-day, their confidence grows and increases," Vernon said.

Vernon said a local tribal leader had approached British forces last night and been tasked with forming the interim leadership of Basra Province. Reporters in the city say British troops began a large-scale effort to distribute water to the city's residents today but have been unable to totally quell the spate of looting that erupted when British soldiers first began moving in.

Young men are still reported to be cruising through some parts of the city in trucks, pickups, and even on bicycles, grabbing what they can, largely from public buildings and facilities.

Despite this, our correspondent in Basra, Charles Recknagel, reports that city life is returning to normal and that most residents are expressing happiness with the turn of events.