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Ground pause for air blitz

Baghdad, March 30 (Reuters): US troops dug in south of Baghdad today, preparing to wait for weeks while air strikes and artillery grind down Iraqi forces defending the capital.

Round-the-clock air strikes hammered Baghdad yesterday and today as the US military sought to break the elite Republican Guard units entrenched in the sprawling city’s outskirts.

The slow-down by some units that had raced for Baghdad early in the 11-day-old war to oust President Saddam Hussein may reflect a tactical rethink prompted by concern about stretched supply lines and stubborn, unconventional Iraqi resistance. Failure to break into the southern city of Basra after a week’s siege may also have forced military planners to adjust.

But top US commander General Tommy Franks, who is bringing an extra 100,000 troops to the Gulf in April, insisted there was no “operational pause” in the US and British invasion.

US officers and soldiers in units in the field south of Baghdad — some are just 100 km (60 miles) away — said they had orders to dig in for at least two weeks to give US air power and artillery a chance to pound Iraqi defences.

Franks, however, said at his command base in the Gulf state of Qatar that the war would pursue its “remarkable” progress. He denied any pause and said the reinforcements bound for Kuwait were part of his plan.

Defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in Washington: “We have no plans for pauses or ceasefires.”

Franks was asked if the war, which the US vice-president had said would last “weeks not months”, could last into summer. ” One never knows how long a war will take,” the general replied.

Truck attack

In Kuwait, the US military said 10 to 15 troops were injured today when a truck drove into a group of soldiers just outside an American military base.

A US military statement said the cause of the incident was under investigation.

Military spokesman Colonel Guy Shields, in answer to questions, said the driver was wearing civilian clothes and added without elaborating that the number of injured would probably change.

A US military source said earlier that an attacker drove a truck into a group of soldiers lined up outside a military shop at Camp Udairi north of Kuwait City. US-led forces are on higher alert for this kind of attack after an Iraqi suicide bomber detonated a car bomb at a military checkpoint near the city of An Najaf on Saturday, killing four soldiers.

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