Bearing down on Baghdad

Outside city, elite Iraqi units hit by bombs, helicopters

Blowing sand slows advance

timing of battle for capital uncertain

Sniper kills U.S. soldier

Apache forced down in south

crew captured

War In Iraq

March 25, 2003|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - American forces closed in on Baghdad yesterday, hitting elite Iraqi troops outside the capital with helicopter gunships and bombs, while small groups of soldiers loyal to Saddam Hussein's government kept up their deadly assaults on the advancing forces.

Lead elements of the main U.S. ground invasion force assembled within 50 miles of Baghdad. But it was unclear how soon the battle for the capital would begin, particularly if stiff Iraqi resistance behind the front lines or sandstorms continue.

For the second day in a row, U.S. forces attacked from the air the Medina division of Iraq's Republican Guard, which is defending the southern outskirts of Baghdad. Not far away, blowing sand slowed the advance of 20,000 troops of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division near Karbala, a Shiite holy city.

As the troops rested yesterday, a sniper circling the U.S. camp shot and killed a tank soldier from the division's 1st Brigade.

One of the 32 Army Apache helicopters used to attack the Medina division was forced down in a farm field. It wasn't clear whether hostile fire or mechanical trouble was responsible. All of the helicopters used in the battle were hit with small-arms fire. Later in the day, the U.S. military destroyed the helicopter, according to reports.

The two U.S. pilots on the downed craft quickly became the latest American prisoners to be shown on Iraqi television. Their fate, and that of five other Americans captured Sunday, wasn't known.

A British soldier was killed near Basra. Though British losses have been relatively high, 17 dead since the conflict began, Prime Minister Tony Blair met little criticism when he reported to Parliament yesterday.

"These things are never easy," Blair said. "There will be some difficult times ahead, but [the war] is going to plan despite the tragedies."

Blair said that "the vital goal is to reach Baghdad as swiftly as possible, thus bringing the end of the regime closer."

The British leader, America's closest ally in the war, is to meet with President Bush at Camp David this week.

Bush, who will formally submit a $75 billion spending request to Congress today for the initial costs of the war, has kept a relatively low profile since ordering the invasion.

Today, the president plans to visit the Pentagon. He is to meet with officers and military families at Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., tomorrow.

Hussein, in a new appearance on Iraqi television, referred to recent fighting in the port city of Umm Qasr in an apparent effort to refute reports that he has been killed. The Iraqi president, wearing a military uniform, predicted victory in a prolonged battle.

"As time goes by, they will lose more, and they will not be able to escape lightly from their predicament," Hussein said, urging Iraqis to slit the throats of the invaders. "We will make it as painful as we can."

The White House has refused to rule out the possibility that Hussein was killed in the attack that Bush ordered on his Baghdad bunker Wednesday. U.S officials said the speech was prerecorded, as most of Hussein's addresses are, and Bush's press secretary, Ari Fleischer, said there was nothing in it that proved it had been made since the war began.

Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, also rumored by some U.S. government sources to have been killed in last week's bunker bombing, held a news conference in Baghdad. Earlier, the Arab TV station al Jazeera broadcast an interview with the commander of Iraq's 51st Division, who was erroneously reported by U.S. officials to have surrendered last week.

As the war entered its sixth day, U.S. officials said a U.S. jet attacking a bridge in western Iraq had accidentally bombed a bus. Syrian television reported that five Syrians were killed and 10 injured. At the Pentagon, Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal apologized for the incident.

At least 20 Americans are thought to have been killed in combat or in war-related accidents since the war began Wednesday. Seven others are missing and presumed dead.

Sunday has been the bloodiest day of the war, with casualties from two engagements near An Nasiriyah, a crossroads city of several hundred thousand on the Euphrates River.

In one battle there, at least nine Marines were killed when Iraqis approaching with a white flag of surrender opened fire. Much of the fighting in the city was for control of two bridges on the invasion road to Baghdad.

Nearby, five American soldiers in a supply convoy were captured Sunday. Seven others are missing and presumed dead.

Battles also raged in and around several areas on the Persian Gulf coast, including artillery exchanges on the outskirts of Basra, a city of more than 1 million. U.S. and British forces have been wary about entering the city, Iraq's second-largest, for fear of guerrilla attacks.

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