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Baghdad falls, street by street

Baghdad, April 8 (Reuters): US forces closed a vice on Baghdad today, advancing street by street and blitzing targets in the heart of the capital, after trying to kill Saddam Hussein and his sons with four huge bombs.

Consolidating the US stranglehold on the city of five million people, Marines captured the Rashid airbase in the southeast, 5 km from the centre.

The US military said it did not know if the air raid on Monday evening had killed the Iraqi President, but said his grasp on the country was fast disintegrating. “We’re not sure exactly who’s in charge at this particular point in time,” US Brigadier General Vincent Brooks declared.

President George W. Bush, visiting Northern Ireland, too, said he did not know if Saddam had survived the attack or not.

The B-1 bomber sent to kill Saddam dropped four satellite-guided bombs only 12 minutes after receiving orders that “this is the big one”, a crew member said. “When we got the word that it was a priority leadership target, immediately you get kind of an adrenaline rush, the crew does,” air force Lt. Col. Fred Swan, a weapons systems officer aboard the plane, said of the daylight attack.

“From the time we got the coordinates, it took 12 minutes to get the bombs on target,” Swan said, adding that two earth-penetrating GBU-31 2,000-pound bombs and two delayed-fuse bombs of the same weight were unleashed.

The swing-wing, four-engine B-1, considered the backbone of America’s long-range bomber force, carries 24 of the satellite-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs.

Swan said he did not know who was in the building destroyed by the bombs, but that the air traffic controller in a nearby airborne radar AWACs plane told the B-1 jet’s crew that “this is the big one”.

Aircraft, tanks and artillery pounded the nerve centre of Saddam’s administration in a thundering raid on central Baghdad that began at dawn, meeting only scattered Iraqi return fire.

“It’s raining bombs,” said Reuters correspondent Samia Nakhoul. “They’re targeting the same area over and over. The place is shaking and there’s smoke rising,” she said from the Palestine Hotel where most foreign media are based. That spot was later hit by the US tank shell that killed two cameramen.

The US military said it was expanding its presence in Baghdad and had met no organised resistance.

Reuters correspondent Sean Maguire said US Marines moved street by street through east Baghdad, meeting small arms fire from Iraqi irregulars and a welcome from some residents. “Thank you, Mr Bush,” cried one lady dressed in black.

“A vice is closing in on this regime, and as the vice closes their time is running out,” said US Lieutenant Mark Kitchens. Brooks said US forces had thrust into Baghdad from the north and south in what appeared to be the final battle for Saddam’s capital.

Iraqi state television went off the air. It did not broadcast its regular news bulletin, showing only old footage of Saddam. Baghdad radio also went silent for a while. The US military indicated that it had targeted the transmitters.

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