KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait—U.S. Army soldiers edged closer to Baghdad on Monday, fighting from behind sandbags and punching through one front-line Republican Guard unit outside Saddam Hussein's capital.
High-ranking U.S. officers said the first major clash in the battle for Baghdad could begin Tuesday—a comprehensive ground assault against an entire Republican Guard division dug in between the U.S. Army and the city.
"Where the regime is, we're coming," said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks.
Other officers warned that the war could prove bloodier than many Americans expect and they again raised the specter of U.S. troops confronting chemical or biological weapons.
"We're prepared to pay a very high price," said a senior official at U.S Central Command in Doha, Qatar, who requested anonymity. "If that means there will be a lot of casualties, there will be a lot of casualties."
One U.S. soldier was reported killed Monday in a battle in Najaf, bringing the U.S. death toll to 48, with many others wounded.
Total Iraqi military and civilian casualties could not be estimated, but U.S. officials said seven Iraqi women and children were killed by U.S. troops near Najaf when their van did not stop at a checkpoint as ordered and after warning shots were fired.
Other accounts said that three Iraqi men also died in the incident and that an Army unit delayed firing warning shots until the van was so close that it alarmed other soldiers who raked the vehicle with cannon fire.
Four Army soldiers died in a suicide car bombing in the same area on Saturday and U.S. troops have been on high alert for additional suicide bombings.
To reduce the threat to U.S. soldiers and prepare the battlefield, more airstrikes hammered areas in and around Baghdad early Tuesday. Eight thousand precision-guided weapons have been fired since the war began, 3,000 of them since Friday, the Pentagon said.
In Washington, the Pentagon claimed that relatives of Saddam were trying to flee the country and implicitly challenged Saddam to prove that he is alive.
"Since the coalition bombed Saddam's headquarters at the very beginning of the war, the world has neither seen his hide nor hair, only tapes," said Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke. " We've not seen his sons. We've seen evidence that family members are fleeing the country or trying to flee the country."
She refused to give evidence to back up her assertion.
President Bush again expressed confidence with the pace of events and again said that one aim of the war is to liberate Iraqis from oppression.
"Day by day we are moving closer to Baghdad. Day by day, we are moving closer to victory," he said during a speech in Philadelphia. "We are coming with a mighty force to end the rule of your oppressors."
In Baghdad, Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri vowed to fight on.
"America and Britain have no choice but to surrender and withdraw," he said. "We will turn our deserts into a big graveyard for the Americans and the British."
As for Saddam's current condition, Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations said he believed that his nation's leader was alive.
"I cannot believe these kinds of speculations," Mohammed Aldouri said. "It's part of the propaganda war. Obviously he's still alive and he's the chief commander right now."
The comments came after armored and ground elements of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division fought their way into Hindiya, about 50 miles southwest of Baghdad.
Trading fire with Iraqi soldiers who sought shelter behind shrubbery and brick walls, U.S. forces reportedly killed at least 35 Iraqis and captured several dozen who wore the distinctive insignia of the Republican Guard.
Other U.S. forces probed the outer circle of Baghdad's defenses as war planes relentlessly battered Iraqi positions in and around the capital. Among the targets struck Monday: the presidential palace used by the commander of the Republican Guard—Saddam's son Qusai.
After several days of attempts, the bombardment finally knocked Iraqi television off the air, though only temporarily. Two planes destroyed an Iraqi military cable repeater station about 100 miles north of Baghdad to disrupt the regime's communications.
With major encounters on the horizon, the Army's 4th Infantry Division—with 30,000 U.S. combat and support troops—prepared to enter the war. That will mark the first large reinforcement of coalition troops since hostilities began.
The division's spokeswoman, Maj. Josslyn Aberle, said the first 500 troops and their equipment from Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, would disembark Tuesday in Kuwait.
She would not discuss the division's orders or how long it would take to deploy all of the unit's troops and 14,000 pieces of armored vehicles, fighting helicopters and other equipment.
But a U.S. military official said on condition of anonymity that the division would be "pouring in" constantly over the next week or two, going directly into combat.
The division's equipment has been floating on ships in the Mediterranean for weeks because of Turkey's refusal to allow use of its bases as a staging area for a northern front. Now, the 4th Infantry will enter the war from the south.
"They are going to augment our forces at the front and fortify the rear areas," said one U.S. official, who requested anonymity. "They are a substantial combat multiplier. They'll give the Iraqis a wallop."
In southern Iraq, a measure of stability emerged as allied forces captured 200 Iraqi prisoners near Basra but still struggled to suppress the paramilitary fighters who have been striking supply lines with hit-and-run attacks.
In Samawah, a small city about 120 miles south of Baghdad, soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division confronted mortar fire but rounded up more than 50 Iraqi prisoners.
"We've effectively cut off a good portion of what (the enemy) thinks he owns in the area," said Maj. Pete Wilhelm, a spokesman for the 82nd Airborne.
In other action, a raid to recover the body of a Marine killed earlier in the war turned up no sign of the remains but destroyed several Baath Party offices in Ash Shatra, a town 23 miles north of Nasiriyah.
Marines also reported capturing two Soviet-designed FROG surface-to-surface missiles, with a range of about 60 miles, near the city of Ad Diwaniyah in central Iraq.
A convoy of up to 700 civilian vehicles was spotted Monday leaving Basra for relatively safe harbor in Umm Qasr. Officials believed that the vehicles carried families seeking refuge and humanitarian assistance in the British-controlled port.
In the southern town of Az Zubayr, British forces replaced their helmets with berets to signal that the fighting was over and the situation was returning to normal. A pickup game of soccer between local citizens and soldiers from the Duke of Wellington Regiment in the border town of Safwan was won by the visitors, 4-2.
Most of the day's action and suspense vibrated along the front lines, as elements of the 3rd Infantry moved within striking distance of Karbala, a strategic crossroads town southwest of Baghdad.
At least 8,000 members of the Republican Guard's Medina division are positioned between Karbala and Baghdad, reportedly in the Karbala Gap, an area between a large reservoir and the Euphrates River.
Inside Karbala, at least 4,000 Iraqi militiamen and soldiers may be laying in wait, U.S. officers said. The Iraqis are also believed to have positioned several dozen tanks near the city, mainly vintage T-55s and T-62s.
As a result, U.S. jets and artillery continued round-the-clock strikes to soften up Iraqi defenses, including raids by B-1, B-2 and B-52 bombers.
Smaller aircraft based aboard the USS Kitty Hawk in the Persian Gulf dropped more than 35,000 pounds of bombs, and aircraft from the USS Harry S. Truman in the eastern Mediterranean doubled their presence over Iraq.
Though Iraqi anti-aircraft artillery has been repeatedly hit near Baghdad, it apparently remains active there and elsewhere.
Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said one pilot described "a World War II sort of image, where wherever you turn or look or dodge, there's triple-A exploding around you."
In other developments Monday:
_Secretary of State Colin Powell was scheduled to leave Tuesday on a hastily scheduled trip to Turkey and to meet European counterparts in Belgium, hoping to shore up battered relations with key allies and plan for administering post-war Iraq.
_One hundred and forty-four U.S. soldiers were being treated at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, 57 of them with battle injuries, according to a spokeswoman for the hospital near Ramstein Air Base in southwest Germany.
The military's largest hospital outside the United States, Landstuhl is gearing up for a large influx of wounded service members and is ready to double its 160 beds, officials said.
(Wilkinson is with U.S. Central Command in Kuwait; Bailey is on the USS Kitty Hawk; Merzer anchored from Washington. Contributing were Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Sandy Bauers aboard the USS Harry S. Truman; Drew Brown with the 3rd Infantry Division outside Karbala, Iraq; Jessica Guynn at the Pentagon; Mark Johnson with the 82nd Airborne Division in Samawah, Iraq; Daniel Rubin in Landstuhl, Germany; Peter Smolowitz at allied headquarters in Qatar; Warren P. Strobel at the State Department; and Juan O. Tamayo with the U.S. Marines in Iraq.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):
GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064):
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