U.S. forces encircling Baghdad

American forces control major roads into capital

`Still fight left,' general warns

Troops evacuated amid report of chemical arms

War in Iraq

April 07, 2003|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Despite pockets of Iraqi resistance, U.S. forces claimed control of all major roads in and out of Baghdad yesterday and demonstrated sufficient command of the capital's airport to land a large military cargo plane there.

A day after a violent three-hour incursion into Baghdad by scores of American armored vehicles that U.S. officials said left about 2,000 Iraqi dead, a senior Pentagon official cautioned that while Iraq's Republican Guard has been badly damaged, there is "still fight left" and potentially difficult combat ahead.

Rather than plunge into the city of 5 million, U.S.-led forces were attempting to encircle Baghdad. Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated that troops would stage rapid raids to destroy Baghdad's defenses while maintaining around-the-clock bombardment of Iraqi forces that emerge to fight.

U.S. forces made their second foray into the city, testing Iraqi defenses and destroying all of the Iraqi vehicles and fighters they came in contact with, U.S. officials said.

In the southern city of Nasiriyah, U.S.-led forces airlifted soldiers of an Iraqi exile group, which Pace called the nucleus of a future Iraqi army, to serve as humanitarian liaison officers and help root out Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's paramilitary fighters among the population.

There were no major allied incursions into Baghdad yesterday, though probes were reported amid a day of progress and one notable setback.

The specter of Iraqi possession of chemical weapons hovered over yesterday's actions. An account by a Knight-Ridder reporter accompanying the 101st Airborne Division said dozens of U.S. soldiers were evacuated last night from an Iraqi military compound after a mobile laboratory confirmed the existence of the nerve agent sarin.

However, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command in Qatar, Lt. Cmdr. Charles Owens, said that after checking, he could not confirm the report.

"We're aware of the Knight-Ridder story. We have no reports of that - nothing to confirm it," Owens said.

U.S. officials have said repeatedly that they are certain that Iraq possesses chemical and biological weapons, but they have not been used in the conflict.

In the north, American officials acknowledged that U.S. aircraft were probably to blame for the mistaken "friendly fire" bombing of a convoy carrying U.S. Special Forces and Kurdish fighters. Kurds reported 18 of their soldiers dead and more than 45 wounded, including the son and brother of Massoud Barzani, one of the two top Kurdish leaders. One U.S. soldier was reportedly injured.

In the south, British troops made their largest incursion yet into Basra, Iraq's second-largest city. Three British solders were killed. The fall of the city appeared imminent.

U.S. forces gained control of the center of Karbala, a Shiite holy city 50 miles south of Baghdad, and were reported to be mingling easily with residents who came out in large numbers to greet them. One American soldier was killed and seven wounded in two days of fighting.

In the western part of the country, a convoy carrying Russia's ambassador to Iraq came under fire after it left Baghdad and headed out of the country. It was unclear who fired on the convoy, which continued on even though three diplomats were reportedly hurt, one seriously.

At an Iraqi training base outside Salman Pak, a town 20 miles from Baghdad, U.S. Marines found the rusted shell of an old passenger jet that they speculated had been used for hijacking practice. A military spokesman said the camp "reinforces the likelihood of links between [Hussein's] regime and external terrorist organizations."

Continued fighting throughout the country prompted United Nations relief officials to warn of a mounting health crisis, with hospitals cut off from new medical supplies and health workers overwhelmed.

Shedding light on the American strategy for taking Baghdad, Pace said on ABC's This Week that "military commanders will slowly but surely take on various parts of the city, go in and clean it out."

"It is certainly true that we have huge amounts of combat power around the city right now, and that we have over a thousand planes in the air every day. So, if it moves on the ground and it takes aggressive action, it's going to get killed," Pace said.

While saying that American troops had not totally sealed off the capital, Pace told CNN: "We do control the highways [leading] in and out of the city and do have the capability to interdict, to stop, to attack any Iraqi military forces that might try to either escape or to engage our forces."

Yesterday's landing of a C-130 military cargo plane at Baghdad's international airport marked a symbolic show of control over the airfield, which was seized with little Iraqi resistance on Friday.

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