Urban warfare in Baghdad

U.S. continues its push in capital's downtown as civilian casualties rise

3 foreign journalists killed

No word on Hussein as soldiers search rubble after bombing

War On Iraq

April 09, 2003|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - U.S. forces drove deeper into the center of Baghdad yesterday as counterattacking Iraqi defenders, fighting more as isolated bands than as a well-coordinated army, failed to prevent the Americans from moving freely in large parts of Saddam Hussein's capital.

The fiercest urban combat yet in Iraq's largest city produced few American casualties but growing numbers of civilian dead and wounded, including three foreign journalists covering the war. Local hospitals struggled to manage the load. Power, water and sewage services, meanwhile, remained cut off for most of the area's 5 million residents.

U.S. officials urged patience as the siege continued, refusing to predict how long the battle for Baghdad might last.

Adding to the uncertainty, there was no word on the fate of Hussein himself.

At the scene of Monday's thunderous bombing strike, aimed at killing Iraq's leader, rescue workers pulled bodies from a crater filled with concrete chunks and pieces of twisted metal. The bodies were of an elderly man, a 20-year-old woman and a child, according to witnesses and Iraqi officials. Other unconfirmed Iraqi reports said 14 people, including seven children, had been killed in the attack.

But nothing that could be called a fresh Hussein sighting or a new message from Iraq's president has come to light since the Monday afternoon attack, raising questions about his whereabouts.

From President Bush on down, American officials said they did not know whether Hussein was dead. Nor could they say with certainty that he was inside when a U.S. B-1 bomber struck the upscale Mansour district west of downtown.

"Saddam Hussein will be gone," Bush told reporters in Northern Ireland, as he and British Prime Minister Tony Blair wrapped up their latest war summit. "It might have been yesterday. I don't know."

The trigger for the precision bomb strike Monday came when American forces intercepted a communication, thought to be from Hussein himself, talking about how and when he would flee the city, ABC News reported. But a conflicting report, from NBC News, said the lone intelligence source was a "reliable spy" who saw Hussein and his son Ousay preparing to meet with up to 30 top Iraqi leaders.

At the site of the attack, which remained under Iraqi control, workers using bulldozers picked their way through a vast rubble pit. Debris from the blast, including steel ceiling beams, had been sent flying more than 100 yards.

There was no sign of Iraqi security at the site, raising doubts about whether any regime leaders were inside when it was attacked. U.S. military officials said it would take "some time" to know whether they had succeeded in killing Hussein or his top aides. But they expressed pride in their ability to deliver the bombs within 45 minutes of receiving "credible" intelligence that Hussein was there.

The four-man bomber crew, made available via telephone hookup for interviews with Pentagon reporters, said they were able to fly over the target within 12 minutes of getting orders to attack.

Lt. Col. Fred Swann, the weapons officer, described what he called "an adrenaline rush" when his jet, which was over western Iraq at the time, was ordered to attack "a priority leadership target."

"This could be the big one," Swann recalled thinking.

The four 1-ton weapons they unloaded included bunker-blasting munitions with time-delay fuses, designed to burrow into the earth before exploding. "We knew we hit the target," Swann said.

A few miles east of the crater where the target once stood, urban fighting intensified on both banks of the Tigris River, which snakes through the middle of the capital.

Blasting cannons as they advanced, U.S. Army tank crews rumbled over a Tigris bridge into the eastern half of Baghdad for the first time. By day's end, U.S. forces controlled two of at least 13 bridges over the river.

American officials said about 4,000 heavily armed U.S. troops had taken up positions in the center of the capital, and there were reports that reinforcements would soon be joining them. Marines, advancing from the southeast side of the city, captured the Rasheed Airport while U.S. aircraft bombed several government high-rises.

For the first time, U.S. officials claimed complete air superiority over Iraq, meaning that Iraqi air defenses could no longer count on protecting any part of the country.

U.S. Central Command also reported, however, the first U.S. aircraft downed by an Iraqi missile, a relatively slow-moving A-10 that was shot down over western Baghdad. The pilot ejected and was rescued.

Separately, it was announced that two U.S. pilots were missing after their Air Force F-15 fighter jet went down over Iraq late Sunday. The cause of the incident was under investigation.

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