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First jab at battered Iraq heart
An Iraqi tank rolls through Baghdad on Saturday. (AFP)

Baghdad, April 5 (Reuters): US troops staged a foray into Baghdad for the first time today, taking the 17-day-old war to topple Saddam Hussein right into his battered capital.

US military sources said 25 Abrams tanks and 12 Bradley Fighting Vehicles had rumbled up a southern highway through Baghdad’s Dawra suburb before swinging west and linking up with troops at the airport, southwest of the city centre.

The task force rumbled back the same way, officials said.The incursion came on a day the Iraqi President, in a message read on television by information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, urged his armed forces and people to step up attacks on the US and British forces.

“The criminals will be humiliated,” the message said. “To hurt the enemy more, raise the level of your attacks.”

The minister said Iraqi soldiers had kept American forces out of Baghdad and had pushed them back from its international airport, though the Americans maintained that they hold the runway but not all outlying areas. He insisted that no US forces had entered the city.

The film footage showing US tanks and troops was shot 20-25 miles from the heart of the city, he said. “The film they broadcast to you is a lie. This is a ploy.” A Reuters correspondent, who drove freely around the sprawling city later in the day, also saw no sign of US forces in areas he visited.

Even as conflicting soundbites added to the haze of war, US Maj. Gen. Victor Renuart said the tank thrust was a “clear statement of the ability of the coalition forces to move into Baghdad at times and places of their choosing”. Such operations would continue, he told a news conference in Qatar. “This fight is far from over.”

In Washington, US President George W. Bush said his troops were fighting a “great and just cause”. “Village by village, city by city, liberation is coming,” he said in his weekly radio address. The foray into Baghdad met with resistance, which one spokesman described as sporadic. “There were firefights, but if you’re one of those folks who were involved in that firefight on the ground, it was pretty intense,” Captain Frank Thorp said.

Four US soldiers were wounded, one of them shot in the head, and an Iraqi general was captured, US sources said.

As US units operated in Baghdad, other troops protected their rear with a ground and air assault on Karbala. In the north, US forces moved from Kurdish-held territory towards Iraqi lines defending Mosul, after a day of American air strikes on the area, a witness said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said several hundred wounded Iraqis had been admitted to Baghdad hospitals after US troops reached the city and fighting erupted.

A bomb hit central Baghdad about 100 metres from the Palestine Hotel where many journalists covering the war in Iraq are staying and where Iraq’s information ministry briefings have been held.

The mood in the capital was grim. “This is it. This is the final battle. We have no way out,” said Nour Khaled, 48, a mother of two. “We’re confronting the mightiest army in the world. What can we do' Where can we go'”

In Basra, US forces said they struck the home of Ali Hassan al-Majeed, or “Chemical Ali”, the cousin Saddam put in charge of Iraq’s southern front. Majeed earned his nickname overseeing the use of poison gas against Kurds in 1988. US officials did not say whether he was in the house at the time.

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