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U.S. troops push deeper into Baghdad from all directions

BAGHDAD, Iraq—U.S. Army and Marine forces thundered deeper into Baghdad from every direction Tuesday, engaging in fierce bursts of urban combat, raining bombs on pockets of resistance and locking remnants of Iraqi units in a tightening vise.

Army columns approaching from the west and Marine columns approaching from the east were so close that they reported each other's outgoing artillery fire as possible enemy attacks on their own positions.

Iraqi Republican Guard troops fled ahead of the U.S. advance, in many cases appearing to have run right out of their uniforms, which Marines found in the streets and alleys of eastern Baghdad. Hundreds of Iraqis looted abandoned government buildings.

"We have isolated the capital," Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, vice director of joint operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the Pentagon.

The air space over Baghdad, a city about the size of metro Detroit with more than 5 million people, was so crowded that air traffic controllers ordered warplanes to wait northeast of the city for their turn to attack.

Stacked over the capital were four F-16s, four F/A-18s, four British Tornados, two B-1 and two B-52 bombers. Dozens more were stationed in the skies around the country, "waiting for something to shoot," said Marine Lt. Col. Brian Delahaut.

One new objective for U.S. troops: reach and examine the site of an air strike Monday that targeted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, his sons and close aides. The bombs crushed a Baghdad restaurant and other buildings, gouging a deep crater in a residential neighborhood.

"This is the big one," Lt. Col. Fred Swan, the B-1B's weapons system officer, said he thought before he hammered the buildings with four 2,000-pound bombs.

Did they get the Iraqi leader?

"I don't know whether he survived," President George Bush said in Northern Ireland, where he completed two days of consultations with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "The only thing I know is that he's losing power."

U.S. officials said their troops—rapidly gaining ground in Baghdad but often at a bloody cost—would attempt to reach the rubble in the upscale Mansour neighborhood in coming days.

At least one U.S. Marine died and many U.S. troops were wounded Tuesday in combat with disorganized but determined groups of Republican Guard and paramilitary fighters who often were ferried to battle in trucks and school buses.

The U.S. military death toll rose to at least 92.

Three foreign journalists were killed when U.S. forces struck the Palestine Hotel and another building in Baghdad. The dead worked for Reuters news agency, Spain's Tele 5 and Arab TV network al-Jazeera. A U.S. statement said troops had come under "significant" enemy fire from the buildings and were exercising "their inherent right of self-defense."

Allied military advances came on every front.

From the east, Marines seized Baghdad's Rashid military airfield, preventing regime officials from escaping by air and providing U.S. forces with another way to fly in troops and supplies. From the north and south, Army units advanced to new positions. From the west, other Army units tightened their grip on positions near Baghdad International Airport.

In southern Iraq, British officials said they captured enough Iraqi war material to supply four divisions and sought guidance on whether to destroy it or preserve it.

Also in southern Iraq, the Marines' 5,000-strong Task Force Tarawa seized the headquarters of the Iraqi army's 10th and 14th divisions near Amara without a fight. They captured 18 soldiers and found 15 abandoned tanks "and a lot of happy civilians," said Lt. Col. Bennett Freemon. "All I know is that there's no military there."

Once again, Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf said his government had it all under control. "The capital, especially the commandos, are getting ready to wipe them out," he said, meeting with reporters outside the Palestine Hotel.

As he spoke, a U.S. bomb or artillery shell struck the hotel.

At the international airport, members of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne Division repelled desperate suicide attacks by small groups of Iraqis.

Warplanes provided close air cover as U.S. artillery and other ground forces defeated the attackers. At least 50 Iraqi fighters were killed and two U.S. soldiers were wounded, U.S. officials said.

Meanwhile, two C-130 cargo planes landed at the international airport and delivered more U.S. troops. Long columns of military cargo vehicles stretched along the airport's southern perimeter. Dozens of helicopters sat idle on an airfield that just days earlier had been controlled by Iraq's Republican Guard.

On the eastern side of town, the Marines who seized the Rashid airport also patrolled about 10 square miles of the city and moved to within five miles of the presidential palaces already occupied by U.S. Army troops.

The Marines found many abandoned Iraqi military vehicles and uniforms. Looters were everywhere, ransacking abandoned government buildings and carrying off stolen goods in stubby carts.

Together, the soldiers and Marines destroyed many of Iraq's most deadly tanks, the T-72s, along with armored vehicles, artillery pieces and machine-gun mounted pickups similar to those employed against Americans in Somalia.

"The closer we get, the fewer conventional forces remain to be seen," said U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks. "There are any number of unconventional operations available to this regime."

Concerning Monday's air strike on the building that might have been occupied by Saddam, U.S. officials said they had a "clear indication" from "human intelligence" that the Iraqi leader would be there and confirmed it with a second source.

Swan, the B-1B's weapons system officer, said the crew had just finished an aerial refueling over western Iraq when the order arrived. Twelve minutes later, the plane dropped two 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions, known as GBU-31s, and two special "bunker buster" versions that penetrate a target before detonating.

No coalition forces were in the area, Brooks said. Ground troops will need to push their way toward the ruins so investigators can analyze whether Saddam or his sons were killed.

"It is possible we will never be able to determine who was present without some detailed forensic work," Brooks said. He would not say whether the coalition had samples of Saddam's DNA.

Also Tuesday:

_Chemical weapons experts continued to test suspected nerve and blister agents discovered near the city of Karbala.

Four soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division and a Knight Ridder reporter who might have come into contact with the substances were sent to the rear for additional examinations. All had sores on their hands and faces.

_U.S. troops rescued a pilot after he ejected from his A-10 warplane just before it crashed near Baghdad. The crash remained under investigation, though Brooks said, "We believe that it was hit by surface-to-air missile fire."

_U.S. Central Command officials said they would investigate the deaths of the three journalists in Baghdad.

In one incident, a missile reportedly struck the office used by the Qatar-based al-Jazeera network, killing a cameraman. In the other, two journalists from Reuters and Spain's Tele 5 were killed at the Palestine Hotel where several reporters have been staying.

Some reporters said they were targeted by U.S. forces; military officials denied it.

"These tragic incidents appear to be the latest example of the Iraqi regime's continued strategy of using civilian facilities for regime military purposes," Central Command said in a written statement. "The coalition regrets the loss of innocent life and will continue its efforts to protect the innocent from harm."

_In the southern city of Basra, British troops ended their search for pockets of resistance. The widespread looting of Monday subsided, but did not end.

Brooks said British troops would re-establish control, stay only as long as necessary and then "leave Iraq in the hands of Iraqi people."

In Basra and several other cities, allied convoys attempted to deliver food and water, but soldiers had difficulty controlling crowds of hungry, thirsty residents.

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(Tamayo is with the Marines near Baghdad; Smolowitz is at allied headquarters in Qatar; Merzer reported from Washington. Also contributing were Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Tom Infield at the Pentagon; Mark Johnson with the 82nd Airborne Division in Samawah, Iraq; Tom Lasseter with the U.S. Army in south-central Iraq; and Patrick Peterson with the Marines in Baghdad).

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ.

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064):

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