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Iraqi weapons cache being examined by biological weapons experts

SAYYID ABID, Iraq—As U.S. armor rolled briefly into Baghdad on Saturday flaunting America's military power, Marines discovered at least two caches of Iraq military warheads in the Iraqi countryside that were being tested as possible chemical or biological weapons.

Military sources said that warheads were found in Aziziyah, about 55 miles southeast of Baghdad. They were being run through a battery of sophisticated analyses by the military's Fox Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Reconnaissance Vehicle—a six-wheeled mobile lab that contains a mass spectrometer for the detection of chemical warfare agents.

Another stash of rockets was found in this central Iraqi town and, military sources said, each was equipped with clear vials containing an unknown substance. Military biological hazard teams are investigating.

Finally, Army chemical weapons detection teams have been called to a field outside of Aziziyah to follow up on tips by villagers that barrels were secretly buried and then covered with concrete and dirt.

Marines initially dug through the dirt and found fresh concrete. They then called in the chemical investigators.

In Qatar, a Central Command official that the sites are under investigation. To date, no weapons of mass destruction—a keystone of the Bush administration's rationale for the invasion—have been found, though military leaders have said that areas they might be found have not yet been reached by coalition forces.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, a daring daytime armor probe pushed to the center of the city before exiting to the west. It came as Saddam's regime continued to assure Iraqis that its army was repulsing the U.S.-led invasion of their country.

"It was very clear to the people of Baghdad that coalition forces were in the city," said U.S. Air Force Major Gen. Victor Renuart, a spokesman for the coalition forces. "It was a very clear statement to the Iraqi regime as well that we can move at times and places of our choosing, even into their capital city."

He added, however, that "the fight is far from finished in Baghdad.''

Indeed, U.S. jets and spy drones started round-the-clock patrols over the city Saturday to provide close air support for any urban fighting ahead. Thousands of civilians fled the capital. And fighting did continue elsewhere in the country Saturday, sometimes in raw hand-to-hand combat, sometimes with aerial bombing and strafing of Iraqi forces.

"We're not softening them up. We're killing them," said Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Moseley, commander of the overall U.S. air war. "I'm not willing to tell you we killed them all, but we crippled them a bit, and those who are still walking are walking with a limp."

In one potentially significant strike, allied aircraft hit the home of one of Saddam's most notorious deputies, Ali Hassan al-Majid, nicknamed "Chemical Ali' for his use of poison gas on the Kurds in 1988, but it could not be immediately determined if he was slain.

Two Marine pilots were killed Saturday when their Super Cobra attack helicopter crashed in central Iraq. And the Pentagon identified the remains of eight soldiers whose bodies were found in shallow graves during the rescue of Army PFC Jessica Lynch. The dead, all with Lynch when their unit was ambushed on March 23 included the first woman killed in combat in the war, Army Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa, 23, a Hopi Indian from Tuba City, Ariz.

In Baghdad, regime officials were defiant in trying to convince the city's five million residents that allied forces were being pushed back.

"We butchered the force present at the airport," said Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf. And a separate statement by the Iraqi military said bluntly:

"We were able to chop off their rotten heads."

The U.S. Army response: a column of Abrams M1A2 tanks and armored Bradley fighting vehicles rolled into the city in broad daylight. They headed north to the Tigris River, near Baghdad University before heading west toward the newly-renamed Baghdad International Airport.

The column had to fight its way through at points; it was met sporadically by irregular forces mixed in with Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard infantry firing rocket-propelled grenades. Americans responded with machine gun fire.

At other locations, the column passed waving Iraqis. Officials refused to say whether any U.S. forces remained inside the city as the column left.

"Those kinds of operations," said Renuart, "will continue."

Fighting remained intense at several locations outside the city.

In a marsh just outside Baghdad, U.S. Marines used bayonets in hand-to-hand fighting with a band of Saddam supporters who came from Egypt, Jordan, Sudan and other countries. There was no word on casualties.

In northern Iraq, U.S. pilots attacked Iraqi military barracks with laser-guided bombs, then strafed surviving troops before being told to stop by coalition forces on the ground. "They're capitulating," said the radio call, according to Navy Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem onboard the aircraft carrier the Harry S. Truman.

In a sign that other Iraqi forces were giving up in the face of relentless allied bombardment, Stufflebeem said, coalition ground troops around the northern cities of Kirkuk, Mosul and Tikrit found discarded Iraqi army uniforms and weapons in former bunkers, leading them to believe that some in the army were abandoning their posts and going home.

Said Moseley: "We either kill them or they give up."

The air strike on al-Majid's home was ordered quickly when officials received intelligence that he was in the area. Two coalition warplanes hit the house in Basra with laser-guided bombs. "We know we got the house and we hope we got him," said a senior military official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

With the title "southern commander of forces," al-Majid ranks just below Saddam's son, Qusay, in the regime's inner circle. A cousin of the Iraqi dictator, al-Majid earned his nickname for directing lethal chemical weapons attacks that killed thousands of Iraqi Kurds in 1988. He also presided over Iraq's brutal occupation of Kuwait before the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

Outside Baghdad, U.S. Marines moving north along Highway 6 engaged Iraqi militias in small towns and villages and encountered thousands of Iraqis fleeing the capital.

Refugees traveled on foot and in late-model cars, trucks and even atop farm tractors. Many waved white flags. Some had only the clothes on their backs; others carted all their worldly possessions. Two young boys traveling with a family struggled to get spilled flour back into a broken, 50-pound sack.

Marines from the 1st battalion 4th Marines handed out humanitarian rations and made polite conversation using hand signals and speaking in broken Arabic.

Enterprising locals sold the Marines cigarettes for $1-$5 a pack. Harsher than American cigarettes, the local brands were nonetheless welcome. Said one Marine: "They were better than what's we'd been smoking—nothing."

In other developments Saturday:

_ British soldiers discovered the remains of as many as 200 persons in a southern Iraq warehouse, along with photographs of what could be torture victims. Initial signs indicated the bodies were dead for several years;

_ Besides Piestewa, the recovered dead soldiers were identified as: Sgt. George E. Buggs, 31, of Barnwell, S.C.; Master Sgt. Robert J. Dowdy, 38, of Cleveland; Pvt. Ruben Estrella-Soto, 18, of El Paso, Texas; Spc. James M. Kiehl, 22, of Comfort, Texas; Chief Warrant Officer Johnny Villareal Mata, 35, of Amarillo, Texas; Pvt. Brandon U. Sloan, 19, of Cleveland; and Sgt. Donald R. Walters, 33, of Kansas City, Mo;

_ Temperatures around Baghdad reached 112 degrees Saturday, unusually hot for April even in the desert climate. With the threat of chemical weapons attack diminished, U.S. forces shed the tops of their chemical suits.

_ At the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains, President Bush Saturday spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who opposes the war, and with Spanish President Jose Maria Aznar, who supports it.

With the war going relatively well, Bush hoped to spend part of Saturday evening watching the college basketball playoff game between the University of Texas and Syracuse University, an aide said.

In his weekly radio address, Bush spoke of the advances across Iraq. "Village by village, city by city," he said, "liberation is coming."

_ Turkey expelled three Iraqi diplomats, becoming the third Muslim nation after Egypt and Jordan to bow to U.S. pressure. The United States, however, had urged Turkey to expel 20 Iraqi diplomats.


(Also contributing: Sandy Bauers, Ken Dilanian, Kevin G. Hall, Mark McDonald and David Montgomery.)


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

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

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20030405 Iraq Day18 summary (posted early in the day), 20030405 Iraq Day18 rdup (posted around 6:30 p.m.) and 20030405 Iraq Day18 update (posted around 9:30 p.m.), will be available.