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U.S. officials suggest major combat all but over in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq—U.S. Army soldiers spent the night in one of Saddam Hussein's main presidential palaces and 10,000 U.S. Marines surged into the capital's outskirts as U.S. officials suggested that major combat was all but over in Iraq.

"The hostilities phase is coming to a conclusion," Secretary of State Colin Powell said Monday. Another leading indicator: Gen. Tommy Franks, who commands the allied force from a base in Qatar, spent much of Monday visiting his troops in Iraq.

At the same time, experts tested chemicals that could prove that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction. U.S. officers said they found substances that preliminary tests determined were the nerve agents sarin and tabun and the blister agent lewisite.

If additional testing confirms the presence of such chemical agents, the discovery at a compound near the city of Hindiyah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, would be the first proof that Iraq has been hiding banned weapons of mass destruction—a primary justification for the war.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld cautioned that initial reports and tests are often inaccurate. "Almost all first reports we get turn out to be wrong," he said.

Some military officers at the scene said the material could be the residue of pesticides; others said they believed nerve agents are present. About a dozen soldiers and two journalists, including Knight Ridder reporter Tom Lasseter, said the substances made them ill or caused blotches on their skin. More sophisticated tests will be conducted in coming days, Rumsfeld said.

In another major development, U.S. and British officials announced that allied bombs almost certainly had killed Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as "Chemical Ali." A member of Saddam's inner circle, al-Majid ordered a poison gas attack that killed thousands of Kurds in 1988.

"We believe that the reign of terror of Chemical Ali has come to an end," Rumsfeld said. "To Iraqis who have suffered at his hand ... he will never again terrorize you or your families."

Other officials said they would await further examination of the human remains found in a building in Basra where al-Majid and other Iraqi leaders were said to be meeting.

"Until they do the DNA I am not going to speculate," said Col. Larry Brown, operations chief for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. "This guy has been like Freddy Krueger. We've killed him four or five times."

In Basra, British troops consolidated their control of the southern city of 1.3 million people, but hundreds of residents indulged in widespread looting—breaking into the central bank and retail shops and setting fire to a hotel.

Further north, 10,000 U.S. Marines streamed across makeshift bridges and floated aboard amphibious vehicles, crossing a tributary of the Tigris River and rushing into the outskirts of Baghdad near the Rashid military airfield. Army forces already held important strategic and symbolic positions in the heart of the city.

And so, early Tuesday, fending off sporadic enemy fire, large numbers of allied forces occupied key precincts of both Baghdad and Basra, Iraq's two largest cities. Both cities were virtually encircled by U.S. and British troops.

"What we're trying to do is surround the city," Brown said of Baghdad. "Keep the rats in and the reinforcements out."

Asked if elements of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division would remain at the presidential palace and other locations in Baghdad or withdraw, Navy Capt. Frank Thorp said: "Obviously, they don't feel they're vulnerable, as they're still in there."

Those accomplishments, combined with relative tranquility behind the front lines and modest gains in northern Iraq, inspired increasingly confident statements by U.S. officials.

"The circle is closing," Rumsfeld said. "Their options are running out."

Several reports said the Iraqi army's 10th Armored Division, based near the southeastern city of Amara, was ready to surrender en masse. Three other army divisions are believed to be nearby, but none has taken any action since the war began.

Rumsfeld acknowledged that Saddam's whereabouts were still a mystery, but said the regime has virtually disintegrated.

"We may not know if or where he is, but we do know that he no longer runs much of Iraq," he said. "His forces continue to surrender and capitulate. His regime is running out of real soldiers."

Franks, chief of the U.S. Central Command, visited troops in the south-central city of Najaf and other Iraqi locations. He told one group of Marines to "remember those we've lost and I also want you to remember what we've gained."

"Get it done and we'll be moving on," Franks said.

President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, meeting Monday in Belfast, Northern Ireland, concentrated on forging a plan for post-war Iraq. As they consulted, U.S. officials in the southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr prepared for the arrival of retired U.S. Lt. Gen. Buck Walters, assigned to plant the seeds of an interim government.

"It is time for all of us to think about the post-hostility stage, how we create a representative government consisting of all elements of Iraqi society," Powell said. The Bush-Blair summit will continue Tuesday.

U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks warned, however, "there's still a great deal of hazard out there" on the battlefield, and more evidence of that flared Monday.

An Iraqi rocket slammed into an Army base on the southern outskirts of Baghdad, killing four people—two U.S. soldiers and journalists from Spain and Germany. On the eastern flank, two Marines were killed and three wounded when an artillery shell struck their armored amphibious vehicle as it approached Baghdad.

The official U.S. military death toll rose to 86, with more than 150 wounded.

In a near miss, a surface-to-air missile was fired at the C-130 cargo plane carrying half the combat operations staff of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force as it flew from Kuwait to a new forward base southeast of Baghdad.

The pilot fired off metallic chaff, a decoy, and dove steeply to duck the missile, fired from near Nasiriyah, the south-central city that has been the focus of resistance to the coalition forces.

In Baghdad, the day's action began around sunrise, when troops from the 3rd Infantry Division in more than 100 armored vehicles rolled into central Baghdad as warplanes provided cover against mostly disorganized resistance.

By the end of the day, at the domed New Presidential Palace, U.S. soldiers strolled under huge chandeliers, smoked cigarettes in a reception room, examined seized documents in a filing room and established a prisoner of war collection center in the courtyard.

In a central Baghdad square, U.S. Army tank crews used a 40-foot statue of Saddam for target practice, destroying it. They also occupied a parade ground where Saddam often reviewed his troops

During their brazen thrust into Baghdad, U.S. tank columns approached the Al-Rashid Hotel, until recently home to many foreign journalists, and passed close to the Iraqi Ministry of Information, according to U.S. officials.

Nearby, Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf asserted that the American invasion had been repulsed and its soldiers slaughtered.

"Be assured Baghdad is safe, secure and great," he said. "There is no presence of the American columns in the city of Baghdad, none at all."

As he spoke, a U.S. shell landed nearby.

A U.S. intelligence official said intercepted Iraqi communications indicate that military commanders are lying to their superiors about the situation. The intercepts, the official said, suggest that Saddam's son Qusai is still alive and may be in charge of Baghdad's defense, which they said could explain why Iraqi officers are afraid to tell the truth about U.S. advances.

Brooks and other allied officials said the Iraqis did manage to mount some resistance.

They damaged one bridge over the Diyala River, east of Baghdad, and fired artillery from the other side of the river, Brooks said.

"Some of the fights have been fights that are worthy of respect," he said, "for forces that unfortunately may be dying for a regime that does not have a future."

Soon, U.S. Marines arrived at that river, which runs east of Baghdad and flows into the Tigris.

Navy Seabees reinforced one bridge over the Diyala and threw a second folding assault bridge across it, affording the Marines access to the opposite bank and Baghdad itself. Other Marines ferried across the river aboard 27-ton amphibious vehicles called Amtracs.

After suppressing small-arms fire, they found abandoned Iraqi weapons and ammunition and Republican Guard uniforms. They advanced toward Rashid Airport, across Baghdad from the international airport already occupied by the U.S. Army. They encountered Iraqi civilians who waved and cheered.

"I wasn't expecting people to be so friendly," said Lance Cpl. Casey Mattox, a Marine from Foley, Ala.

In recent days, hundreds of Iraqi prisoners of war from areas around Baghdad have been loaded into school buses and shipped to a temporary holding area a few miles from the south-central city of Najaf, according to U.S. military officials.

They appeared docile, drained of the will to resist their captor's demands that they kneel or stay quiet.

"These guys don't have any fight in them by the time they get to us," said Capt. Joe Murdock, commander of the 855th Military Police Battalion.


(Peterson is with the Marines in Baghdad; Smolowitz is at allied headquarters in Qatar; Merzer reported from Washington. Also contributing were Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Scott Canon with the Army near Baghdad; Andrea Gerlin with the Marines outside Baghdad; Jessica Guynn at the Pentagon; Tom Lasseter with U.S. chemical detection teams in Iraq; Fawn Vrazo in Belfast, Northern Ireland; Juan O. Tamayo at Marine headquarters in Iraq; and Jeff Wilkinson in Kuwait City. Kuwait.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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