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Troops Pushing Toward Baghdad Battle Republican Guard

Troops Pushing Toward Baghdad Battle Republican Guard

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(AP) U.S.-led troops fought pitched battles with Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard within 50 miles of the capital Monday as coalition warplanes pounded the city and dozens of other Iraqi positions in advance of the battle for Baghdad.

In the closest ground fighting yet to Saddam's seat of power, U.S. troops with the 3rd Infantry Division pushed into the Euphrates River town of Hindiyah on Monday. Iraqi soldiers fired from behind brick walls and hedges with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades, and U.S. troops returned fire with 25mm cannon and machine guns.

At least 35 Iraqis were killed and U.S. forces captured several dozen others who identified themselves as members of the Republican Guard -- Saddam's best-trained and best-equipped fighters. Their uniforms carried the elite unit's triangular insignia and they said they were with the Nebuchadnezzar Brigade, based in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit.

Iraq remained defiant Monday; in Baghdad, Foreign Minister Naji Sabri questioned the legitimacy of the strikes and called on coalition soldiers to surrender.

"America and Britain have no choice but to surrender and withdraw," Sabri said. "They will not leave our land safe and sound if they continue to be stubborn in their aggression. We will confront them with all we have ... No one will be safe."

"We will turn our deserts into a big graveyard for the Americans and British," he said.

Coalition attacks on leadership and command and control centers in Baghdad were carried out simultaneously by multiple B-1, B-2 and B-52 bombers, according to U.S. Central Command. A 2 a.m. missile strike on the information ministry touched off a fire at the nearby 28 April Shopping Center, named for Saddam's birthday. A telephone office was struck later in the day, Iraqis said.

With constant aerial bombardments on the capital and ground forces advancing from the south, west and north, U.S. military leaders defended the pace of the war effort Sunday, answering criticism that they had underestimated the vigor of Iraqi resistance.

"We have the power to be patient in this, and we're not going to do anything before we're ready," said Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

There is good reason for caution as troops face persistent danger from plainclothes killers and warnings from Iraqi officials that there will be more suicide attacks like the one that killed four Americans on Saturday.

Sabri said more than 5,000 Arabs have come to Iraq to help attack the invaders. Iraqi dissidents and Arab media have claimed that Saddam has opened a training camp for Arab volunteers willing to carry out suicide bombings.

In the north, U.S. aircraft pounded Iraqi positions near the town of Kalak on Monday, aiding Kurdish fighters as they seized territory from Saddam's fleeing troops. Under relentless attack, Iraqi forces could be seen abandoning positions on a ridge west of the Zab River.

Far fewer Iraqi troops have been seen along the border of Kurdish-controlled territory in recent days, which could indicate government forces were pulling back toward Mosul, the largest city in northern Iraq.

Iraqi deserters who have sought safety with Kurdish forces say they endured backbreaking toil as soldiers in Saddam's army, and constant scrutiny by security squads. Deserters who are captured face execution. There has been a slight increase in the number of deserters since the U.S. bombing began, said Barham Salih, prime minister of the Kurdish government in northern Iraq that is allied with the Americans.

"The Iraqi military establishment has suffered a serious blow," Salih said. "There is no real fighting being conducted ... The Iraqi military is caught in a difficult situation, between allied bombardment on the one hand and Saddam's death squads on the other."

In south-central Iraq on Sunday, the Army's 82nd Airborne Division killed about 100 "regime terror squad members" and captured about 50 Iraqi militants in the Shiite Muslim holy city of Najaf and another nearby town, Central Command said. It did not further identify the "terror squads."

It was unclear whether U.S. forces would attempt to capture Najaf, a city of 300,000, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, or just surround it. There are too many Iraqi fighters to bypass them or leave them unattended; they are a danger to supply lines on the way to Baghdad.

Coalition forces are also leery of damaging Najaf's holy shrines, which could anger Shiites in Iraq and elsewhere, most notably Iran.

In the southern city of Nasiriyah, where fighting has been fierce for a week, Marines on Sunday secured buildings held by an Iraqi infantry division that contained large caches of weapons and chemical decontamination equipment.

Also Sunday, a Marine UH-1 Huey helicopter crashed at a refueling point in southern Iraq, killing three aboard, said spokesman 1st Lt. John Niemann.

In Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, British forces continued to skirmish with militiamen loyal to Saddam. As many as 1,000 Royal Marines and supporting troops destroyed a bunker and several tanks in a commando assault Sunday. About 30 Iraqis were captured and an unknown number were killed. One Royal Marine was killed in the assault.

Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, a spokesman for Central Command, said residents of Basra were providing information about Saddam loyalists in the city, but there were still areas "under the boot of the Iraqi regime."

"We wouldn't say that Basra is completely under coalition control," he said.

British forces also discovered a cache of arms and explosives at a school in the southern port city of Umm Qasr. Australian mine clearance experts were called to dismantle the weaponry Monday, Australian defense spokesman Brigadier Mike Hannan said.

Australian divers also are working to clear a sunken boat loaded with mines discovered near the grain terminal in Umm Qasr, Hannan said.

Umm Qasr, Iraq's only deep-water port, is an important conduit for humanitarian aid and military supplies, but shipments have been delayed because of fears that waters may be mined.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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