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American thrust into fiery heart

Baghdad, April 7 (Reuters): Saddam Hussein’s snipers crouched behind bridges and artillery fire rang out from almost every direction today as Iraqi forces defended Baghdad against US troops who had thrust into the heart of the city.

The urban warfare the Iraqi President promised the invading forces finally began as dozens of US tanks rumbled into the city of five million people and entered two presidential compounds on the west bank of the Tigris.

The US military said it found substances in central Iraq that could turn out to be a “smoking gun” indicating banned chemical weapons.

Major Michael Hamlet of the US 101st Airborne Division said initial tests on substances revealed levels of nerve agents sarin and tabun and the blister agent lewisite. “If tests from our experts confirm this, this could be the smoking gun. It would prove Saddam has the weapons we have said he has all along,” Hamlet said.

The US military described the assault on Baghdad by more than 100 tanks and armoured vehicles as a show of force, rather than a final attack, but they remained in the centre of the capital after nightfall. US officers said the assault was intended to prove to Saddam that they could strike at will.

But Saddam’s forces have not yet given up. “Iraqi forces are blocking streets all over town and their artillery is in action,” Reuters correspondent Samia Nakhoul said. “The Iraqis are definitely fighting back.”

The white dust of mortar mingled with a sandstorm that cloaked the city this morning, obstructing visibility as the thud of artillery and mortar bombs reverberated across the capital.

Almost the only people walking the streets were Iraqi soldiers in full combat gear or fighters in civilian clothes.

Residents hid indoors to escape the crackling automatic fire and exploding shells. State television showed old footage of Saddam and played patriotic songs.

Almost the only non-military vehicles were ambulances evacuating casualties, and pick-up trucks loaded with people fleeing the city.

Baghdad’s hospitals battled with a constant stream of dead and injured. Doctors said there were so many cases that they were running short of anaesthetics and medical equipment.

“Surgeons have been working round the clock for the past two days and most are exhausted. Conditions are terrible,” said Roland Huguenin-Benjamin, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

A US armoured column blasted into central Baghdad early morning with relative ease, but two Marines were killed and three wounded in a fierce battle for two river bridges in the east. The Marines said their comrades had died in “friendly fire” when an artillery shell fired by their own side fell short.

The Marines later crossed the Diyala river even though the Iraqis had damaged the bridges to slow them down. Two US soldiers and two journalists were killed and 15 people wounded in an Iraqi attack on a communications centre in the southern outskirts of Baghdad. Iraq said the invaders were “committing suicide” at the capital’s gates.

Heavy fighting raged in the afternoon and Iraqi forces poured artillery shells into a presidential complex on the west bank of the Tigris river that US forces had seized.

A Reuters photographer said shells, apparently American, were landing in the gardens of the luxury Rashid Hotel and around the information ministry.

US Lieutenant Colonel Pete Bayer had said earlier: “We have seized the main presidential palace in downtown Baghdad.… There are two palaces down there and we are in both of them.”

The commander of the US-led invasion force, General Tommy Franks, visited troops in three locations in Iraq today.

Some military analysts said they believed the fall of Baghdad was imminent, others voiced caution. “The battle in Baghdad and the hit-and-run strategy we are seeing now does not mean the Iraqi military has been completely defeated,” Frank Umbach, a security and defence analyst, said. “I see the fighting going on for a number of weeks.”

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