Bush Says Coalition 'Moving Closer To Victory' As Heavy Bombing Continues

Airstrikes may have taken out half of Hussein's elite Medina Division.

[This story was updated on 03.31.03 at 10:21 p.m. ET.]

After dropping 3,000 bombs in three days, coalition forces in Iraq are "moving closer to victory," President Bush said on Monday, hours before another heavy air assault hit Baghdad.

Explosions early Tuesday local time were reported in several regions around the capital city, including the headquarters of the Fedayeen Saddam paramilitary group and stations of the elite Medina Division of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard, according to CNN. The Pentagon said on the 13th day of Operation Iraqi Freedom that the Medina Division, stationed south of Baghdad to prevent coalition forces from advancing, may have been cut in half by bombing runs.

U.S. ground forces have also engaged other segments of the elite divisions in the closest battle to Baghdad. Forces from the Army's 3rd Infantry Division pushed north into the town of Hindiyah, less than 50 miles from Baghdad, in what's being called the "red zone." (Click for map of the battlefield). The Republican Guard is more likely to use chemical or biological weapons within the "red zone," U.S. intelligence officials believe. So far, however, none have been encountered.

Republican Guard troops launched attacks on U.S. tanks and armored personnel carriers using light arms and grenade launchers, and American troops responded with artillery fire from tanks. Fifteen Iraqis were reportedly killed in the fighting, while several dozen other soldiers, some belonging to the Republican Guard's Nebuchadnezzar brigade, were captured, according to Fox News. One U.S. soldier was injured.

Meanwhile, Iraqi units were reportedly moving from posts in northern Iraq to bolster defenses in the south.

Also Monday, at a checkpoint near Najaf, soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division fired on a van that failed to stop when soldiers waved for it to halt and fired warning shots. Seven passengers — all women and children — were killed and two were wounded, according to Central Command, who said in a statement, "In light of recent terrorist attacks by the Iraqi regime, the soldiers exercised considerable restraint to avoid the unnecessary loss of life."

Also near Najaf, an airfield was seized without a fight and about 100 Iraqi soldiers were killed and 50 others captured in various battles. One U.S. soldier was killed in the area, according to Fox News. U.S. Marines in nearby Nasiriya have changed tactics and are now engaging Iraqi regular and paramilitary troops door-to-door within the city, according to CNN.

Elsewhere on the ground, British soldiers launched strikes on Iraqi troops in a suburb of Basra. Officials said at least 300 Iraqis were taken as prisoners of war.

And U.S. officials said they killed as many as 200 Iraqi troops in fighting with Republican Guard troops southeast of Karbala. Dozens of Iraqi soldiers surrendered in the fighting. Col. Will Grimsley of the 3rd Infantry Division told French news service AFP that the battle represented "the first serious contact" with Hussein's elite troops.

In the air, targets in Northern Iraq were also pounded Monday. Iraqi troops stationed on a ridge were attacked by two U.S. F-14 Tomcats about 25 miles east of Mosul around 9:30 a.m. ET, according to CNN. The area was showered with bombs on Sunday.

In Baghdad, three huge explosions were seen early in the day, and a giant plume of smoke rose over a palace belonging to Saddam Hussein's son Qusay. Iraqi national television was temporarily knocked off the air, probably as a result of the strikes, and the Karada Intelligence Complex, the presumed headquarters of the Fedayeen paramilitary guerrilla group, was also hit, according to CNN.

About 8,000 precision-guided bombs, along with 3,000 missiles, have been used by the U.S. since the attack on Iraq began. More than 2,000 sorties are expected to be flown by coalition forces by the end of the day, the largest number of takeoffs since the onset of the war.

In direct opposition to nearly every report from the United States and Britain, Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri said that coalition forces were being defeated on all fronts and retreating from Iraqi attacks.

Other key developments in the last 24 hours:

  • President Bush, in Philadelphia to address the U.S. Coast Guard, warned Hussein's "dying regime" might try to "bring terror to our shores."

  • Under pressure to choose sides in the Iraq war, the Syrian government said it would back the Iraqi people. "Syria has chosen to align itself with the brotherly Iraqi people who are facing an illegal and unjustified invasion and against whom are being committed all sorts of crimes against humanity," a foreign ministry spokesman said in a statement carried by the Syrian News Agency.

  • An International Committee of the Red Cross team has interviewed about 100 captured Iraqi troops at an undisclosed location in southern Iraq, the first such meeting since the conflict began, according to CNN.

  • Iraqi forces tried to push women and children onto a bridge rigged with explosives between Hilla and Karbala, shooting a woman who tried to escape, according to Central Command. Coalition officials have accused the Iraqi regime of using civilians as human shields.

  • Clean water began flowing to the southern Iraqi port city of Umm Qasr from Kuwait through a pipeline that will provide 600,000 gallons of fresh water a day, according to CNN. Iraqi forces had cut off water supplies to the city.

  • Per Saudi officials' request, Navy ships positioned in the Red Sea are being moved to the Persian Gulf. After a small number of missiles crashed in their territory, Saudis have also reneged on giving U.S. permission to fly cruise missiles over its airspace

  • A car crashed through the gate of the British Embassy in Tehran, Iran, and exploded, according to Fox News. The driver of the vehicle is confirmed dead, but no other information was available at press time.

  • Two soldiers from the 1st and 2nd brigades of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division were killed Monday by Iraqi soldiers dressed as civilians, who fired on them with guns mounted on vehicles, according Fox News.

  • Coalition intelligence sources claim members of Saddam Hussein's family and his close friends were making arrangements to leave Iraq, according to Fox News.

  • Despite some reports to the contrary, Iraqi Scud missiles were not fired on Israel, the Pentagon said.

  • Three U.S. troops were killed and a fourth was injured in a Marine helicopter crash in southern Iraq. Pentagon officials said the crash was an accident and not caused by enemy fire as an Iraqi official had claimed.

  • NBC severed ties with veteran war correspondent Peter Arnett after he gave an interview with Iraqi television and called the U.S. war plan a "failure" due to Iraqi resistance. Arnett apologized for the remarks on NBC's "Today" show Monday.

  • Two U.S. soldiers were rescued in southern Iraq Sunday after being lost in the desert for a week.

  • British officials retracted a claim that they had captured an Iraqi general over the weekend in Basra. Heavy fighting continues in that southern Iraqi city.

  • President Bush and Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge spoke about homeland security Monday in Philadelphia.

  • Seventy-six percent of Americans believe the war is going as well as planned or better, according to a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. Sixty-six percent approve of the job President Bush is doing.

  • The latest, revised casualty count: 63 U.S. and British troops killed, 24 missing. The total number of Iraqis killed is unknown.

    — Joe D'Angelo, Gil Kaufman, Corey Moss and Ethan Zindler

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