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Fierce Fighting on Road to Baghdad

Fierce Fighting on Road to Baghdad

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(AP) American-led forces dropped 1,000-pound bombs on Iraqi Republican Guard units ringing Baghdad on Friday and battled for control of the strategic city of Nasiriyah. President Bush warned of "further sacrifice" ahead in the face of unexpectedly fierce fighting.

In anticipation of a push on Baghdad, F/A-18s attacked a Republican Guard fuel depot and missile facility south of the Iraqi capital, officials said. Hornets dropped 500-pound satellite-guided bombs on the fuel facility, while other planes hit the missile site with four, 1000-pound bunker-penetrating bombs.

Iraq said at least 58 civilians were killed when a bomb struck a crowded, open-air market in the capital and blamed the deaths on American and British invaders.

The first wounded American service members to return to the United States were being treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. At least four were brought back, two of them carried into the hospital on stretchers.

On the 10th day of Operation Iraqi Freedom, a British supply ship docked in the southern port city of Umm Qasr bearing tons of humanitarian supplies, and officials said fires at three of seven oil wells in the south had been extinguished.

At the same time, American officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Saddam Hussein's troops have been spotted between U.S. and Iraqi lines wearing full chemical protection gear and unloading 50 gallon drums from trucks. The report reinforced concern that American and British troops might face chemical weapons.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld sternly warned the Syrian government to cut off alleged shipments of night vision goggles and other military equipment to Iraq. "We consider such trafficking as hostile acts and will hold the Syrian government accountable," he said.

Syrian and Iraqi officials both ridiculed the charge.

In Iran, hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated, denouncing both "Bush's barbarism" and "Saddam Hussein's dictatorship."

As the number of Americans inside Iraq continued to swell, the 101st Airborne Division raided Republican Guard units south of Baghdad in the first such attack by the division in the war. Two Apache helicopter gunships crashed on their return, but all crew members escaped injury.

A missile exploded in the sea near a shopping mall in Kuwait City in the middle of the night, the closest a missile has come to the city since the war started in neighboring Iraq. Two people were injured. U.S. officials said it appeared to be a Silkworm missile launched from southern Iraq. The Chinese-made Silkworm is an anti-ship missile with a range of about 50 miles.

In Basra in southern Iraq, a pair of F-15E Strike Eagles destroyed a two-story building where some 200 Iraqi regime paramilitary members were meeting. The U.S. Air Force jets used laser-guided munitions to destroy the building, while leaving undamaged the Basra Christian Church which was 300 yards away.

In a possible friendly fire incident near Basra, a British soldier was missing and believed killed and four other soldiers were injured after armored vehicles came under attack in southern Iraq, defense officials said. Four other soldiers were injured. Britain's Press Association news agency, citing defense sources, said an American A-10 "tankbuster" plane targeted two British armored vehicles.

Buoyed by a second day of good weather, American and British warplanes bombed at will. Many warplanes took aim at the Medina Republican Guard division, defending the capital against American advance units. "They are continuing to soften up targets," said Capt. Dick Corpus aboard the USS Kitty Hawk. "We are very satisfied with the progress so far."

There was fresh bombing as well in cities near northern Iraqi oil fields that are a major objective of American forces.

Inside the capital, a large explosion struck early Saturday in the area near the Information Ministry.

But in the marketplace, crowds of mourners wailed and blood-soaked children's slippers sat on the street not far from a crater blasted into the ground.

Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf said at least 58 people were killed, and charged that Americans and British were targeting civilians to avenge losses on the battlefield. "These are cowardly air raids," he said.

Overall, Iraq claims more than 4,000 civilians have been killed or wounded since the war began on March 19.

The combat flared as Bush and his administration officials walked a tightrope -- insisting that the war was proceeding according to plan, yet preparing the country for more combat casualties.

Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, used a color-coded map of Iraq to demonstrate to reporters that Saddam has lost control of 35 percent to 40 percent of his country.

At the White House a short while later, Bush forecast victory, yet added, "Fierce fighting currently under way will demand further courage and further sacrifice."

Nasiriyah and Basra provided two examples of the tougher-than-expected fighting Bush referred to, the first the site of some of the fiercest fighting of the war, the second a city of 1.3 million people encircled by British forces.

Marines and Iraqi forces exchanged tank and artillery fire in their continuing battle for Nasiriyah, a city of about 500,000 on the Euphrates River between the Kuwaiti border and Baghdad. Ground forces called in Cobra support helicopters, and loud explosions could be heard throughout the city.

In Basra, closer to the Kuwaiti border, Iraqi forces said to be members of the paramilitary Fedayeen continued to resist British efforts to take control.

British military officials said Iraqi paramilitary forces fired mortars and machine guns on about 1,000 civilians trying to leave Basra, forcing them to return to the city. Lt. Cmdr. Emma Thomas, a British military spokeswoman, said an initial group of 1,000 who made it out safely were given food and medical attention. She said the firing started when a second group of about the same size started fleeing.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.) APTV-03-28-03 2124MST

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