Baghdad, March 31 (Reuters): US forces battled Republican Guards on the southern approaches to Baghdad today and colossal air strikes pounded the Iraqi capital, ratcheting up the pressure on President Saddam Hussein.
The strikes came after what sounded like a big artillery barrage on the city’s southern edge. Jets screamed low through anti-aircraft fire. Explosions echoed from the south and west.
“The artillery fire is suddenly very intense. We can hear it coming from the south. It’s unusual,” said Reuters correspondent Samia Nakhoul. “There’s a new air raid on. I've heard six very loud explosions in the city.”
Reuters correspondent Nadim Ladki said the sound of explosions also seemed to be coming from the west of the city, from the direction of Saddam International Airport.
With fighting raging near the site of ancient Babylon and at various other points along the Euphrates river, advance units of the US and British invasion army were 80 km from Baghdad — their closest point to Saddam’s powerbase.
“We’re coming. Where the regime is, we’re coming,” Brigadier General Vincent Brooks said at US Central Command in Qatar, adding that some elite Iraqi units were in serious difficulty.
US commanders appeared determined to take the fight to Iraqi militiamen harrying their advance, while hitting regular troops and Republican Guard units blocking routes to Baghdad.
A night missile strike on the information ministry knocked local television briefly off the air a day after America’s top soldier vowed to “draw the noose tighter” around Baghdad.
But General Richard Myers, head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there was no rush to storm the city. “We’ll be patient,” he said in Washington.
Iraq remained defiant and Saddam appeared on television alongside his two sons. It was the first time that his eldest son Uday had been seen on video since the war opened on March 20, but it was not clear when the footage was taken.
An array of missiles and bombs rained down on targets around Baghdad in an effort to wear down its defences ahead of an eventual assault by US divisions moving up through the desert.
Three huge explosions shook the city centre in the afternoon. One hit a presidential palace used by Saddam’s second son Qusay, who commands the Republican Guard, sending a mushroom of white smoke from the battered complex.
US officers said Iraqi militia and Republican Guard units suffered heavy losses in fierce fighting near the towns of Hindiya and Hilla on the approaches to Baghdad. At least one American soldier died in the day-long clashes.
Iraqi foreign minister Naji Sabri hurled insults at the US and British “mercenaries”, saying they would die in the desert. “With every passing day, they are sinking deeper into the mud of defeat and their losses are increasing,” he declared.
In the north, US planes bombed targets in and around the city of Mosul. Elsewhere, Brooks said US special forces were “denying freedom of movement throughout the western desert”.
South of Baghdad, US troops called in air strikes to try to smash the resolve of the Iraqi defenders, who hit back with tanks, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.
At Hindiya, Iraqi prisoners taken in fighting included an officer who said he was from the Nebuchadnezzar Division of the Republican Guard, thought to have been based much further north. Brooks said this might indicate that the Iraqis were bringing in reinforcements or replacing losses.
The death of a US soldier near Hilla raised the American toll in the war to at least 46 with another 17 missing. Britain has lost 25 soldiers, one more than in the 1991 Gulf War. Only five have been killed in action, while 15 have died in accidents and five by “friendly fire”.
Iraq has said nearly 600 Iraqi civilians have been killed and over 4,500 wounded. It has not listed military casualties.
US troops raced towards Baghdad early in the war, but left behind towns where Iraqi paramilitaries have tried to disrupt supply lines that stretch up to 375 km from Kuwait. Some US units have now turned back south to try to quell the resistance, which has proved stronger than expected.
As US and British troops labour to overcome forces loyal to Saddam across the southern half of Iraq, Western planes enjoyed complete control of the skies.
Long-range B-1, B-2 and B-52 bombers joined forces in the early hours today to hit communication and command centres, shaking buildings across Baghdad as their bombs struck home.
Air raids have increased in intensity over the past 48 hours. US Central Command described the overnight air raids as a “historic bomber package” — the first time the three aircraft had been used to strike the same area at the same time.
Worries that a long war in Iraq could derail the global economy hit stocks on Monday, with the Dow Jones Industrial average tumbling 2.5 per cent in early New York trade.