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U.S. Declares Near Chokehold on Baghdad

U.S. Declares Near Chokehold on Baghdad

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(AP) U.S. troops declared a near chokehold on Baghdad on Saturday and dashed daringly inside, blasting targets nestled in palm trees, to show they can move at will against the capital's beleaguered defenders.

Expectations were high of an ultimate showdown with a shredded but dangerous Iraqi force, not only in Baghdad but in Basra to the south and elsewhere along the war's many points of conflict.

"They're pretty much cut off in all directions," Air Force Capt. Dani Burrows, speaking for Central Command, said of Baghdad's fighters.

Saddam Hussein's black-clad militia -- his desperadoes -- suddenly surfaced in downtown Baghdad and Iraqi troops deployed at strategic city points at nightfall. Iraqi leaders talked bravely in the face of bleak prospects.

"We were able to chop off their rotten heads," the Iraqi armed forces said in a televised statement, claiming victories no one could see.

Allies said they were creating a zone of control around Baghdad that would continue to let civilians leave and humanitarian aid get in while they go up against Saddam's centers of power.

They said they retooled their air strikes to support a coming ground assault on the capital while hoping Iraqis would give up the fight before bloody urban combat became necessary.

In one close-quarters skirmish, Marines with bayonets battled Arab fighters from abroad in a marsh on Baghdad's southern outskirts.

Two Marine pilots were killed Saturday when their Super Cobra attack helicopter crashed in central Iraq. And the Pentagon confirmed the first combat death of an American woman in the war -- Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa, 23, of Tuba City, Ariz.

Her body, and those of six colleagues from the 507th Maintenance Company, were found during the rescue of American POW Jessica Lynch in Iraq. The death toll for the allied forces reached 100, three-quarters of them American.

Bullish on Baghdad and their progress overall, U.S. officials cautioned that allies did not have control in many parts of the country. As well, they had only made an incursion in the capital, not staying to hold ground.

"The fight is far from finished," Maj. Gen. Gene Renuart told a briefing at Central Command's Qatar headquarters.

A convoy of armored vehicles from the 3rd Infantry Division rolled into the city, although apparently well away from downtown, firing on trucks and other targets half-hidden by leaves and turning them into fireballs.

During their trip into southwestern Baghdad, U.S. troops ran into nests of intense resistance, drawing rocket-propelled grenades and even anti-aircraft cannon, turned on them at ground level.

And on the airport road, Iraqi troops posed for Iraqi photographers standing atop what they said were U.S. armored personnel carriers destroyed in battle Friday and Saturday.

Renuart said the foray "was a clear statement of the ability of coalition forces to move into Baghdad at the time and place of their choosing."

Iraqis were fleeing the city by the tens of thousands, some in vehicles bearing improvised white flags made from torn-up towels or T-shirts.

In the evening, Baghdad's streets were bustling with Iraqi troops, militia, loyalists from Saddam's Baath party and all manner of armed men. Tanks and field artillery faced approaches most likely to be used by the allies.

Members of the Fedayeen, a militia led by Saddam's son Odai, appeared downtown for the first time since the war began, wearing their distinctive black uniforms. The United States considers them ill-trained but fanatical.

The morale of some Iraqis was clearly crumbling.

"We've lost -- we are losers," an Iraqi man told a reporter for National Public Radio.

Lt. Gen. Michael Moseley, in charge of the air war, said from his Saudi command post that the Republican Guard, backbone of the Iraqi armed forces, has been hit so hard it "doesn't really exist anymore."

Some 6,500 Iraqi soldiers are in allied custody.

In northern Iraq, Kurdish forces backed by U.S. warplanes drove Iraqi forces farther back from Kurdish frontiers. The Kurds moved within 20 miles of Kirkuk, Iraq's second largest oil center, and a similar distance from the oil city of Khaneqin.

In the south, two allied aircraft struck the Basra residence of Saddam's cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid, commander of southern forces. He is known as Chemical Ali by opponents who accuse him of once ordering the use chemical weapons against Kurds.

British forces discovered boxes containing hundreds of human remains in a warehouse between Basra and Az Zubayr. Officials said the remains were not from this war.

They also found a catalogue of photographs of the dead, some indicating that the people had been shot.

Along Highway 6 on the southern outskirts of Baghdad, Marine helicopters picked up a 5-year-old boy whose face had been blown away by shrapnel, taking him and his father to an emergency medical center.

Marines also airlifted six other Iraqis for hospital treatment and found that when one man's civilian clothes were cut open, he wore a military uniform underneath.

The highway was a scene of devastation -- charred carcasses of tanks and trucks, collapsed buildings, buses blown onto the roof of a depot. A date tree forest was on fire, apparently set by artillery.

At Baghdad's airport, captured by U.S. troops Friday, soldiers used explosives to clear abandoned buildings and examined an extensive underground complex below the airfield.

Lt. Col. Lee Fetterman, a battalion commander with the 101st Airborne Division, said several hundred Iraqis were killed at the airport, including some with bombs strapped to them who apparently intended to attempt suicide attacks.

Renuart said the Americans' hold on the airport was firm, despite Iraqi counterattacks Saturday, and he indicated one runway would soon be usable.

Red Cross workers in Baghdad reported several hundred war wounded and dozens of dead had been brought to four city hospitals since Friday.

"The hospitals are finding it increasingly difficult to cope with the continuous influx of wounded," Muin Kassis of the International Committee of the Red Cross said in Amman, Jordan.

Southwest of the capital, units of the 3rd Infantry captured the abandoned headquarters of the Republican Guard's Medina division in the town of Suwayrah.

An Army mechanic in his armored vehicle toppled a mosaic of Saddam outside the headquarters, then took a sledgehammer to it. Another soldier clutched the disembodied arm broken off a statue of the Iraqi president.

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

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