WASHINGTON - Under cover of drizzle, dust and darkness, Iraqi troops were reported to be repositioning south of Baghdad yesterday, as U.S. ground forces were massing for a major battle near the gates to the capital.
American paratroopers seized an airfield in northern Iraq, expanding the battlefield into the portion of the country containing rich oil fields and Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.
In and around Baghdad, the U.S.-led air campaign again pounded targets that included Iraqi missile sites positioned in residential neighborhoods. Most of the precision-guided missiles and bombs were directed at elite Republican Guard units on the southern outskirts of the city.
At least 14 Iraqi civilians were killed when a market on the northern side of the city was blasted by a bomb. American commanders said they were investigating whether a stray U.S. missile was responsible for the incident, which produced the first major civilian casualties of the week-old war.
For the second straight day, poor weather put a damper on the air war. Some Navy attack aircraft had to dump their bombs into the ocean after being forced to bypass targets. Weather conditions were expected to improve today.
In northern Iraq, U.S. forces strengthened a second front with the deployment of 1,000 members of the 173rd Airborne, who flew from Italy and dropped into an airbase in the Kurdish autonomous zone.
In the south, American soldiers faced tenacious opposition at several points along a supply line winding out of Kuwait. Fighting erupted again in the strategic crossroads city of An Nasiriyah, where Marines fought to maintain control of bridges that have been the scene of repeated skirmishes.
Along the Persian Gulf coast, American and British warplanes poured lethal fire on a column of Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles streaming out of Basra, where a humanitarian crisis could afflict the city's 1.3 million residents. The unexpected flight of Iraqi forces suggested that the struggle for control of Iraq's second-largest city might be reaching a climax.
Since the war began, 25 Americans have been killed, five of them in accidents; 28 others have been injured. Among British forces, 20 have died. President Bush, rallying public support for the effort to overthrow Saddam Hussein, flew to Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., and declared that the U.S.-led invasion was making "good progress."
Bush, however, dropped an upbeat line from his prepared text that would have said the U.S.-led invasion was proceeding ahead of schedule. White House aides explained later that Bush had decided to err on the side of caution.
"This war is far from over," the president told a wildly cheering crowd of military families and service personnel. But, he added, "day by day, Saddam Hussein is losing his grip on Iraq. Day by day, the Iraqi people are closer to freedom."
Bush made an apparent reference to reports that seven Army mechanics who were ambushed at An Nasiriyah on Sunday had been executed by the Iraqis.
Describing what he called the "evil" at the heart of Hussein's regime, Bush portrayed some regime loyalists as cowards "whose idea of courage is to brutalize unarmed prisoners. They wage attacks while posing as civilians. They use real civilians as human shields."
Late in the afternoon, Bush arrived at Camp David, in the Maryland mountains, for overnight meetings with his staunchest ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The two will speak to reporters at the close of their mini-summit today.
Public opinion surveys show that American backing for the war effort remains solid, with about seven in 10 approving of the effort to oust Hussein by force. Just over one in three Americans, though, say the war is going very well, as round-the-clock news reports from the battlefront influence public attitudes.
U.S. military spokesmen again rejected criticism that allied war planners had underestimated the strength of the Iraqi response and had failed to deploy enough heavily armed ground forces at the start of the invasion. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks told a briefing in Doha, Qatar, that the war effort remained "on plan."
Officials are stepping up the effort to move more American combat forces into the region. One unit is the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, based at Fort Polk, La., which has tanks, armored vehicles and helicopters. But it could take up to three weeks for those forces to arrive.
The only tank-heavy unit is the 3rd Infantry Division and both active duty and retired officers complain that there should be at least two such divisions there, contending that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld failed to deploy such forces fast enough.
"Had [Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the commander of the gulf operation] had his way, you would have seen more [units] there earlier," the Pentagon planner said. "There has been more management of the flow than I think was expected."