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(AP) American forces battled Iraqi defenders in fierce street fighting 50 miles south of Baghdad on Monday, pointing toward a drive on the capital. Seven Iraqi women and children were killed at an Army checkpoint when their van refused orders to stop, officials said.
American troops and tanks encountered rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire in a dawn raid against Republican Guard defenders of Hindiyah, a key city astride the Euphrates River. Other units fought to isolate Najaf to the south and prevent attacks on U.S. supply lines.
"There are maneuvers going (on) to try to destroy those divisions that stand in our way" of Baghdad, Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said at the Pentagon. He added that more than 3,000 precision-guided bombs have been dropped on Iraq in the past few days, out of 8,000 in the entire war.
In the northern part of Iraq, commanders said an assault on a compound controlled by an Islamic Iraqi group turned up lists of names of suspected militants living in the United states.
And heavy bombing was reported during the day, from areas near the northern oil fields, to downtown Baghdad, to the Republican Guard defensive positions south of the city.
On the 13th day of Operation Iraqi Freedom, British officials claimed that 8,000 Iraqis have been taken prisoner so far.
But a defiant Iraqi foreign minister said invading forces face the choice between death or surrender. "Every day that passes the United States and Britain are sinking deeper in the mud of defeat," said Naji Sabri.
Sabri struck his defiant pose at a news conference at the Iraqi Ministry building -- bombed for the second time in two days.
For his part, President Bush warned that Saddam "may try to bring terror to our shores." The United States is acting to prevent such threats, he said as he issued his latest forecast of victory. "Day by day we are moving closer to Baghdad. Day by day we are moving closer to victory," Bush said during a trip to Philadelphia.
Officials said the civilians were killed when Army guards opened fire at a checkpoint near Najaf, the same general area where four soldiers from the same unit were killed in a weekend car bombing. This time, officials said Army guards fired warning shots at the vehicle, then fired into its engine, but neither action stopped the van. The military is investigating.
"In light of recent terrorist attacks by the Iraqi regime, the solders exercised considerable restraint to avoid the unnecessary loss of life," said a statement from U.S. Central Command.
The official casualty count for Americans stood at 42 dead, seven captured and 17 missing. Another 25 British troops are listed as killed in action.
There are no official estimates for Iraqi casualties, although officials have said upwards of 4,000 civilians have been killed and wounded.
Some defecting Iraqis described harrowing conditions, and not only from American air bombardments.
One, who agreed to talk on condition his name not be used, said agents of the ruling Baath party attempted to shoot deserters. "But we decided it was either die from an American bomb or be killed by our own people," he said in the Kurdish town of Kalak in northern Iraq.
American and British warplanes continued to bomb at will. Thunderous explosions rocked the Baghdad skyline after dark, and smoke billowed from the Old Palace presidential compound. Iraqi state-run television was briefly bombed off the air, and nearly all telephone service was knocked out in the capital.
Officials in Biyare, in northern Iraq, said the assault on a compound controlled by Ansar al-Islam turned up documents, computer discs and other material belonging to Arab fighters from around the Middle East. The administration has longed claimed that the Iraqi-based group and al-Qaida are connected. But there was no immediate indication of evidence that tied Ansar to Saddam.
McChrystal said a week of intensive bombing has caused a "very significant weakening of the forces" arrayed to protect Baghdad.
Apart from the 8,000 precision-guided bombs, he said 700 Tomahawk land attack missiles have been fired at Iraqi targets since the war began.
Much of the day's fighting occurred south of Baghdad, where American forces are gathering strength for the push toward the capital.
U.S. troops staged a raid as the sun rose on Hindiyah, a city of 80,000. Iraqis used small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades to try to prevent a column of tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles from taking control of a bridge over the Euphrates.
"This must have been important to him to send down a Republican Guard brigade," said Col. David Perkins, whose troops were facing Iraqis wearing the distinctive patches of Saddam's elite units.
Inside the city, U.S. soldiers found a small cache of weapons. But the haul was bigger at the local Baath Party headquarters.
There, the Americans found tons of ammunition and hundreds of weapons, including several boxes of American grenades marked "Property of the Ministry of Defence of Jordan."
Maps inside the building showed Iraqi military positions and the expected route of the U.S. attack.
The 1st and 2nd brigades of the 101st Airborne Division battled to isolate Najaf, a Shiite holy city. Iraqi forces attacked with mortar and small arms fire, and Maj. Carl Purvis, an Army spokesman, said the Army forces were prepared for house-to-house combat.
"They are trained and poised to do that if necessary," he said.
In Washington, the State Department said Secretary of State Colin Powell will travel to Turkey and Belgium on Tuesday for talks on the war as well as postwar reconstruction of Iraq.
Turkey is permitting use of its air space for combat aircraft, but rejected a U.S. request to allow ground troops to invade northern Iraq from Turkish territory.
In Brussels, Powell is expected to meet with NATO and European Union officials. Both organizations are split over the war.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)