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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- Fighting Continues In Baghdad, But Troops Feel 'Close To End Of War'

Prague, 8 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz is in Baghdad with the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division. He describes heavy air strikes overnight from U.S. forces and continued fighting today. He also discusses recent rumors that a U.S. air strike may have killed Saddam Hussein and his sons, as well as yesterday's Iraqi rocket attack on the tactical operations of the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, which killed two U.S. soldiers and two journalists.

Question: Yesterday you spoke to us from the Baghdad airport, located on the southwestern outskirts of the city. Today you're talking to us from the north side of the city. What can you tell us about where you are and what kind of action you're seeing?

Synovitz: Last night I saw intensive air strikes all around the north side of Baghdad, with large bombs exploding very close to where our position was, large bombs falling very close to where the U.S. troops' positions were, and targeting Iraqi armor and apparently targeting a motor pool on the north side of Baghdad and other areas.

The 1-15 Task Force today has been continuing its cleanup operations on the north side of Baghdad and it's been coming into some heavy fighting, moving within a kilometer of an Iraqi artillery battalion. I've been hearing intensive artillery fire from both sides, with U.S. tanks firing into those positions, and they did call a U.S. A-10 attack plane in on those Iraqi positions. Initial reports say one A-10 attack plane was shot down by Iraqi air defenses -- however, the U.S. pilot escaped unharmed and got back to the American side.

Question: There is the sense that this is the beginning of the end of the U.S.-led military campaign in Iraq. What is the mood of the U.S. troops you're with?

Synovitz: The mood of the U.S. troops is jubilant at the moment. They do feel that they are close to the end of the war. The officers that I'm talking to, who are closer to the information that's coming out on the battlefield, feel that it will be a matter of days, possibly even hours, rather than weeks. One officer commented to me that the regime of Saddam Hussein may already have crumbled, [but] they may just be having trouble getting the word out to the Iraqi rank-and-file soldiers that are continuing to fight in the city itself.

Another comment that I've heard from several soldiers is that they feel they will have to be around Baghdad awhile for policing operations. They're aware that there are many Kalashnikov assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers that are dispersed with individuals throughout the city. So they feel that there may be guerrilla attacks upon U.S. positions for a long time to come, even if the regime has finally crumbled.

Question: The U.S. military says a so-called "leadership target" was bombed yesterday in Baghdad, leading to speculation that Saddam Hussein and his two sons may have been killed. How is the military in Baghdad reacting to this latest rumor?

Synovitz: There have been rumors going around with the American troops that one of Saddam Hussein's sons was killed weeks ago, there were reports that Iraqi officials had confirmed the death of the eldest son of Saddam Hussein, [Uday]. As for whether Saddam himself has been killed or not, the soldiers are very suspicious of rumors at this time, because they've heard so many rumors in the past that he was injured, or that he was killed, or that Tariq Aziz had been killed at the outset of the war -- only to hear nothing further developing out of it.

But I think one of the general feelings of a lot of the soldiers here is that Saddam Hussein may have left the country days ago before the U.S. troops had even captured the Saddam International Airport on the southwest side of Baghdad, which is now called Baghdad International Airport, which was last week. Again, these are feelings and rumors rather than any concrete info that the troops here have.

Question: You had been based with 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division, but switched to the 3rd Brigade just a day before yesterday's rocket attack, which killed two U.S. soldiers and two journalists [Christian Liebig of the German weekly "Focus" and Julio Anguita Parrado of the Spanish newspaper "El Mundo"]. What can you tell us about this?

Synovitz: The rocket attack at the tactical-operations center of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division came within 24 hours of the [U.S.] command center in Qatar announcing that U.S. troops had advanced to the location of that tactical operations center. The command-and-control center had said that the troops were at the intersection of Highway 1 and Highway 8.

I had been based there for three days at that very location with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team's tactical-operations center and had left less than 24 hours before that attack happened. I did talk to the journalists who were killed on the last day of their lives. I spoke to the German journalist from "Focus" and the Spanish journalist as well and both of them had talked about how they had managed to work their way up to Baghdad by joining with a medical corps, in an armored medical vehicle, and then gradually moving up in the lines to Baghdad. Both of them felt quite confident and happy that they had reached Baghdad in time to cover the battle of Baghdad. The comment the German journalist made to me was that he felt he had initially been embedded with a rear-echelon unit, but had finally managed to make it to the front lines.