U.S.-led forces continued their bombardment of Baghdad on Friday, following one of the heaviest nights of air strikes since the war began last week.
Locals flee as Basra burns in the background.
Several explosions rocked the Iraqi capital and thick plumes of smoke rose into the sky after the latest attacks. According to the Reuters news agency, there were blasts in both the center and on the outskirts of the city and Iraqi forces had responded with anti-aircraft fire.
Overnight Baghdad suffered a severe night of bombing that partially cut telephone service. The U.S. military command in Qatar said B-2 stealth bombers and missiles had targeted Baghdad's communications infrastructure.
"Coalition air forces and Tomahawk missiles took out a communications center and command and control facilities in the capital city during the night," the U.S. Central Command said in a statement.
Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf said the Baghdad raids killed seven civilians and wounded a further 92. He said 26 people were also killed in bomb attacks on the central city of Najaf.
U.S. troops used tanks, artillery and helicopters to battle an Iraqi force of about 1,500 men overnight just outside of Najaf, military sources said on Friday. Coalition forces were also preparing to confront elite Iraqi units from the Republican Guard near the city of Kerbala 110 kilometers (70 miles) south of Baghdad within a couple of days.
Iraqi Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmed told journalists late Thursday that he expected coalition forces would likely encircle Baghdad within five to 10 days, but said Iraq was prepared for heavy urban warfare that could drag on for months.
U.S. to mobilize 130,000 troops
As the coalition pressed ahead with its ground campaign against Iraq, the United States announced it was mobilizing a further 130,000 troops for the war effort. Around 30,000 soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division in Fort Hood, Texas were expected to leave for the Gulf region within days. The remaining ground forces are to be deployed next month, according to Pentagon officials.
In an attempt to put more pressure on Iraqi forces, the U.S. expanded a new northern front after parachuting 1,000 troops from the 173d Airborne Brigade into Kurdish-controlled areas north of Baghdad.
The troops have since set up an airfield and C-130 cargo planes had begun unloading troops and armored vehicles. The landing zone in the north will support "a robust flow of follow-on forces," said one U.S. defense official.
The new front will also likely support Kurdish fighters as they get ready to take on Iraqi troops. According to media reports, Kurdish troops advanced into Iraqi government-controlled territory on Friday, as Baghdad's forces retreated to positions near the northern city of Kirkuk.
Iraq said to shell civilians
In the southern city of Basra, a British officer said Iraqi forces had shelled around 1,000 civilians who were attempting to cross a bridge out of the city. Captain Robert Sandford of the 7th Armored Brigade told Reuters several people were injured in the mortar attack, but no one was thought to have died. Another group of a few thousand also tried to flee the city, but were forced to turn back when attacked by Iraqi paramilitaries.
The attack could be a retaliation against Basra's mainly Shi'ite Muslim population that has never completely supported the ruling regime dominated by Sunni Muslims. There was talk earlier this week of an uprising in Basra, but that was later played down by coalition officials.
Basra is currently surrounded by U.S. and British tanks and artillery, causing relief organizations and the United Nations to fear there may be a humanitarian crisis since the city is running short of water and power.
The HMS Sir Galahad
In an attempt to avert a large-scale civilian catastrophe, the British supply ship Sir Galahad arrived in the southern port of Umm Qasr on Friday stocked with over 200 metric tons of food, medicine and other supplies. The ship had been help up for days, as coalition forces cleared the surrounding waters of mines.
Bush and Blair meet
U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Thursday came together at the president’s Camp David retreat outside of Washington to discuss the progress of the war. At a joint press conference, the two leaders reiterated their resolve to oust Hussein from power. "Saddam Hussein will be removed no matter how long it takes," Bush said.
But on Friday, Blair emphasized the coalition was committed to providing humanitarian relief even as the conflict rages. Speaking to the BBC, he also said he was confident there would soon be a new United Nations resolution for aid to Iraq.
A row over the war in the U.N. Security Council had stalled agreement over restarting the oil-for-food program for Iraq, but a vote was scheduled on the issue for Friday. The program allows Iraq to sell oil to purchase food, medicine other humanitarian supplies under U.N. supervision.
"I expect today the council will pass a resolution," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told reporters. "We will need to move very quickly."
Over half of the Iraq's population receives aid from the oil-for-food program.
Blix prepared to return to Iraq
Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix on Friday said his team was willing to return to Iraq after the war to determine whether there are weapons of mass destruction. In an interview with German television, Blix said the United States and Britain could welcome an independent confirmation if banned weapons are found.
But he said he did not think Baghdad would use chemical or biological agents against coalition forces even if Iraq has them, since it would serve as a justification for the U.S.-led invasion.
The U.N. chief weapons inspector Hans Blix
"There are many places around the world that have their doubts about this war. If Saddam Hussein uses chemical weapons he will lose sympathy and many people would say the war was justified," Blix said.
U.S. Brigadier General Vincent Brooks told reporters on Friday that Iraq might use weapons of mass destruction only after coalition forces advanced to threaten specific areas. On Thursday, British troops found 3,000 protective chemical suits abandoned by retreating Iraqi forces.
Compiled by DW-WORLD staff with information from wires
Information on troop movements, victims and damage estimates are based on information from parties involved in the war and cannot be independently verified.