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U.S. Battles Militants on Road to Baghdad

U.S. Battles Militants on Road to Baghdad

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(AP) U.S.-led forces launched missiles Tuesday toward Baghdad and the holy Shiite Muslim city of Karbala to the southwest, and the U.S. military said it was investigating the shooting deaths of seven Iraqi women and children by American troops at a checkpoint a day earlier.

U.S. soldiers on the road to Baghdad fought bloody street-to-street battles with militants loyal to Saddam Hussein.

Iraq's information minister read a speech he attributed to Saddam on Iraqi television Tuesday night that urged a holy war against what he called the "evil, accursed" invaders.

Circling warplanes bombed targets in Baghdad and the Karbala area. Buildings in the capital shuddered in some of the strongest blasts since the air war began March 20. Smoke billowed from the capital's Old Palace presidential compound.

Among the targets, U.S. officials said, was a complex that serves as the office of the Iraqi National Olympic Committee, where Iraqi dissidents say Saddam's son Odai ran a torture center.

The coalition has relentlessly targeted Republican Guard positions in and around Baghdad in preparation for the war's likely decisive battle. U.S. forces battled some of these fighters Monday in the Euphrates River town of Hindiyah, about 50 miles south of the capital.

Saddam did not appear on Iraqi TV, but Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf read a speech on his behalf urging Iraqis to wage a jihad, or holy war, against the U.S.-led forces.

"Those who are martyred will be rewarded in heaven," he said. "Seize the opportunity, my brothers.

"Strike at them, fight them," the speech said. "They are aggressors, evil, accursed by God. You shall be victorious and they shall be vanquished."

To the south, Marines said they captured some Republican Guard officers and killed dozens of Iraqi fighters on the outskirts of the town of Diwaniyah. Other units fought to isolate the holy Shiite city of Najaf in an ongoing effort to protect U.S. supply lines. A series of ruse attacks by militants in civilian clothes -- including a suicide bombing Saturday that killed four soldiers -- have made the trek north increasingly dangerous for coalition troops.

Monday's fatal shooting happened at a U.S. Army checkpoint near Najaf, about 20 miles north of the suicide attack. Coalition officials said soldiers motioned for an approaching van to stop, but the driver ignored them. Troops first fired warning shots, then shot into the engine and then the passenger compartment as a last resort, according to a statement from U.S. Central Command, which oversees the war in Iraq.

The van was carrying 13 women and children, and seven were killed, the statement said. But The Washington Post, whose reporter is embedded with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, said 15 people were in the vehicle and 10 were killed, including five small children. The newspaper described the vehicle as a four-wheel-drive Toyota crammed with the Iraqis' personal belongings. In its account of the shooting, the Post quoted an Army captain as saying the checkpoint crew did not fire the warning shots quickly enough.

Central Command said initial reports indicated the soldiers had acted properly. Spokesman Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks attributed the discrepancy in the number of dead to "the fog of war."

He said the coalition has tried to avoid harming civilians and blamed the deaths on the Iraqi regime's guerrilla tactics and its practice of using women and children as shields.

"The blood is on the hands of the regime. If there's a question of morality, it really should go back to the regime," Brooks said.

Another Iraqi was killed Tuesday in a similar checkpoint shooting near the south-central town of Shatra, Central Command spokesman Navy Capt. Frank Thorp said.

Such incidents are likely to stoke opposition to the U.S.-led invasion among Iraqis in the Shiite region, where Washington had hoped for a popular uprising against Saddam's Sunni Muslim government.

U.S.-led troops moving north toward Baghdad have focused much of their energy on rooting out fighters with the ruling Baath Party militia and the Fedayeen -- Saddam's most trusted paramilitary militia. But they have also distributed rations to civilians in an effort to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.

Near the town of Diwaniyah, about 80 miles southeast of Baghdad, Marines battled Iraqi Republican Guardsmen and other fighters who fired on them from fortified bunkers and positions in buildings and behind vehicles. The Iraqis, armed with rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and small arms, were outmatched, but kept fighting for about 10 hours, Lt. Col. B.P. McCoy said.

At least 75 Iraqi fighters were killed and 44 were taken prisoner, including two Republican Guard officers, he said. The Marines, who provoked the fight by going into an area where they had been fired on before, used 155mm artillery to clear mortar nests and destroy Iraqi tanks.

Earlier Tuesday, al-Sahhaf alleged coalition warplanes had bombed two buses carrying "human shields," including Americans and Europeans, near the Jordanian border. Central Command said a preliminary investigation has not turned up any evidence of such an incident but it was continuing to look into it. Peace groups in Jordan said they had heard nothing about such an attack.

Iraq also publicly denied a report that Saddam's family had fled the country. A statement on Iraqi TV called the report "a rumor circulated by the U.S. Defense Department."

Iraqi TV aired footage Monday of Saddam and his sons Odai and Qusai, but there was no way of determining when it was shot. U.S. intelligence has not confirmed Saddam survived an attack early in the war.

President Bush warned that Saddam "may try to bring terror to our shores." The United States is acting to prevent such threats, he said, while offering assurances that the war remains on track. "Day by day we are moving closer to victory," he said.

In northern Iraq, commanders said forces searching the recently captured compound of Muslim extremist group Ansar al-Islam found documents, computer discs and other material belonging to Arab fighters -- including lists of suspected militants living in the United States. The Bush administration has long claimed Ansar is linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network, but there has been no indication it has ties to Saddam's regime.

Near the southern port of Basra, warplanes from the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk dropped bombs on an Iraqi presidential yacht and another ship, Navy officials said Tuesday. Brooks, the Central Command spokesman, said British forces in Basra had destroyed a number of Iraqi tanks and personnel carriers, rescued two Kenyan truck drivers who had been held by Iraqis since last week and captured an Iraqi general who had provide information about battlefield tactics. He gave no other details about the general.

The Pentagon said the number of American troops killed in the war so far is 46, up three from Monday. It listed 16 as "duty status whereabouts unknown" -- similar to missing in action -- and seven are prisoners of war.

The coalition lost an S-3B Viking plane Tuesday when it veered off the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Constellation and slipped into the Persian Gulf. Both pilots aboard were rescued, and suffered only minor injuries.

Elsewhere, an Iraqi prisoner was shot to death after he reached for a Marine's weapon while being questioned, Central Command spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Charles Owen said Tuesday.

In Kuwait, where 5,000 of an expected force of 30,000 troops from the Fort Hood, Texas-based 4th Infantry Division have arrived, Brig. Gen. Stephen Speakes said the troops could be on the battlefield "in a matter of weeks." The first ships bearing tanks, helicopters and other equipment for the division are being unloaded, and 30 more are expected at a Kuwaiti port.

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

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