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Coalition Forces Halfway to Baghdad

American and British troops have captured key areas of southern Iraq as they move towards Baghdad. Fresh explosions rocked the Iraqi capital Saturday and continued sporadically into early Sunday morning.

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U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Division troops take aim on an Iraqi farmhouse during a refueling stop in southern Iraq on Saturday.

As the aerial bombardment of Iraq continued into early Sunday morning, U.S. and British Marines battled Iraqi forces in the south of the country.

On Sunday, Iraqi television reported that Iraqi troops had clashed with U.S.-led forces in the desert around the town of Najaf, 160 km (100 miles) south of Baghdad. Najaf is the closest point to Baghdad where ground fighting has been reported since the war began on Thursday. Iraqi television also said the leader of President Saddam Hussein's Baath Party in Najaf was killed in the fighting.

Pentagon officials said it was impossible to predict when U.S.-led troops might reach Baghdad, but said there were signs that the Iraqi leadership was beginning to crumble. It was also clear, they said, that despite the coalition victories, troops have met stiffer-than-expected resistance in several isolated pockets as they push deeper into Iraq.

A Reuters correspondent reported a limited clash with Iraqi
troops 70 km (45 miles) southeast of Najaf that held up the U.S.advance overnight. U.S. officers told him there was heavier fighting barring the way further upriver, close to Najaf itself. U.S. commanders believe a division of Saddam's
better-equipped Republican Guard was in place at Najaf.

Coalition troops take Nasiriya and Umm Qasr, surround Basra

U.S. forces say they have taken control of the city of Nasiriya, a key crossing on the Euphrates river, the port town of Umm Qasr and have now surrounded the southern oil city of Basra.

US-Militär nahe der irakischen Stadt Basra

U.S. soldiers in the southern Iraqi city of Basra.

Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television, quoting Iraqi medics, said 50 people were killed when U.S. F-16 planes bombed near Basra. The report was not confirmed independently. A U.S. officer said earlier that Marines defeated Iraqi forces in a battle on the outskirts of Basra on Saturday, taking many prisoners, but it was not clear who controlled the city.

American soldiers injured in grenade attack

In the latest blow to coalition forces, 13 American soldiers were wounded in a grenade attack at a military camp in Kuwait on Saturday, the U.S. military said, and broadcast reports said another U.S. soldier was being questioned about the incident. CNN reported on Sunday that one of the soldiers died of his injuries.

U.S. Central Command said in a statement that one or more unknown assailants had "attacked elements of the 101st Airborne Division at Camp Pennsylvania, Kuwait" early on Sunday local time. "The area has been secured and an investigation is under way to determine the circumstances of the attack," it added.

Initial media reports spoke of a possible "terrorist attack."

Further missile strikes on Baghdad

While the ground offensive intensified, Baghdad was the target of heavy bombing throughout the day and into Saturday night. A series of explosions rocked the Iraqi capital around 8.30 p.m. GMT and plunged large areas into darkness. A BBC correspondent said it was the first assault on power supplies since the start of the war. There were also reports of explosions and anti-aircraft fire in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

The attacks destroyed two Iraqi palaces and the intelligence headquarters in Baghdad and reportedly injured 200 people. The information minister said several houses
were hit in Baghdad. Iraqi forces moved on Saturday to ignite trenches filled with oil in an attempt to create thick clouds of black smoke to make it more difficult for U.S. and British forces to hit targets in the city from the air.

The heaviest assault on Baghdad to date came on Friday evening, as thunderous explosions rocked the city of five million people, for nearly an hour. They sent fireballs and thick smoke billowing skyward and triggered earth-shaking shock waves.

Iraq remains defiant

Saddam Hussein zeigte sich heute im irakischen Fernsehen

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, is shown in this image from video shown on Iraqi television, Saturday, March 22, 2003.

Despite Friday's devastating assault, Iraq remained defiant on Saturday. State-controlled television showed pictures of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein meeting with top military leaders and Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf addressed the Iraqi people. "Baghdad will remain with its head held high," al-Sahhaf said. "The Baghdad of Saddam will remain defiant." Iraq’s representatives at the United Nations also demanded the world body condemn the U.S. invasion.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri told Syrian television on Sunday that the Iraqis wouldn't be cowed by the strikes. ""The Iraqi people will fight...from border to border. All of the Iraqi population is armed. There are seven million civilians with weapons apart from the armed forces."

No traces of Scuds or banned arms in Iraq as yet

Four days into the war, U.S. forces in Iraq have yet to find any evidence of the suspected chemical or biological weapons that triggered the invasion, a U.S. general said on Saturday.

Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, vice director for operations on the U.S. military's Joint Staff said at a briefing that none of the missiles fired by Iraq so far in the war had been a Scud. "To my knowledge, we have not discovered any to this point."

Asked if any signs of chemical or biological weapons had been found, the general replied, "We have found no caches of weapons of mass destruction to date."

U.S. Army Gen. Tommy Franks addresses the media

Earlier on Saturday U.S. Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of coalition forces invading Iraq, made his first wartime appearance before the press on Saturday, a day after the start of his much-anticipated "shock and awe" strategy.

Gen. Franks detailed the coalition's tactics hours before Baghdad was hit by a new round of air strikes on Saturday evening. Franks pledged during the news conference in Qatar that the campaign would continue in the same vein as it has, saying the assault would be one of "shock, surprise, flexibility" that employed munitions on a "scale never before seen."

Bush warns war could be "longer and more difficult"

On Saturday, U.S. President Bush warned Americans in his weekly radio address that the war could take longer than expected. ""A campaign on harsh terrain in a vast country could be longer and more difficult than some have predicted," he said. The president vowed to apply decisive force to shorten the conflict.

"Now that conflict has come, the only way to limit its duration is to apply decisive force," he said.

In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Friday he was pleased with the course of the war. "The confusion of the Iraqi officials is growing," he said on Friday. "Their ability to see what is happening on the battlefield, to communicate with their forces and to control their country is slipping away."

In other developments:

  • An Australian journalist in northern Iraq was reportedly killed in an apparent suicide bombing.
  • A Kurdish military commander said U.S. forces had fired missiles on Ansar al-Islam, an Islamist group accused by Washington of ties to al Qaeda.
  • Turkey opened its airspace to U.S. military aircraft on Friday evening.
  • The United States will allow the opposition to rule Iraq after Saddam is deposed rather than installing a U.S. military administration, according to the main Shiite Muslim opposition group.
  • On Saturday seven British soldiers died in a helicopter crash, the second fatal crash since the war began.

    Compiled from wire reports

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