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