Coalition Forces Engage In 'Big Battle' With Republican Guard

Soldiers receive battle plans for eventual siege of Baghdad.

[This story was updated on 04.01.03 at 9:06 p.m. ET.]

In what some officials are calling the beginning of the battle for Baghdad, coalition forces engaged in major combat with Iraq's elite Republican Guard about 60 miles southwest of the Iraqi capital early Wednesday local time on day 14 of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The "big battle," as a U.S. military official described it to NBC News, came after Tuesday's intense bombing of the region in and around the town of Karbala, where Saddam Hussein's Medina Division has been resisting coalition forces for several days.

Air attacks late in the day and early Wednesday also hit targets in Baghdad, including a presidential palace, according to CNN.

Coalition forces received a battle plan for a siege on the capital Tuesday, although no timetable for when the ground attack will commence has been established. Gen. Tommy Franks will give the order whenever a "tactical advantage" presents itself, without having to consult first with either President George W. Bush or Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, military officials told CNN.

The new battle plan may cause fighting in Basra, Najaf, Nasiriya and other cities to take second priority. (Click for map of the battlefield.)

Also late Tuesday, coalition forces rescued American POW Jessica Lynch, according to U.S. Central Command. Iraq is still holding six other prisoners, according to the Pentagon.

Meanwhile, the White House continued to question whether Hussein has been killed or injured. Iraqi television networks said he would address his nation on Tuesday, but Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf read a statement from the leader instead. In it, Hussein called on the Iraqi people to launch a jihad, or holy war, on coalition forces.

"Where are Iraq's leaders?" Rumsfeld said at his briefing Tuesday. "The night before the ground war began, coalition forces launched a strike on a meeting of Iraq's senior command and control, and they have not been heard from since."

Elsewhere Tuesday, a major firefight involving U.S. Marines and Iraqi forces erupted around Diwaniya, 75 miles southeast of Baghdad. Ninety Iraqis died in the skirmish, and 44 were taken prisoner, according to Fox News.

Coalition forces located Baath Party and military headquarters within the city and found 6,000 mines, a building filled with rocket-propelled grenades and other stockpiles of ammunition.

Farther south, U.S. bombs and missiles hit targets near Basra, destroying a presidential yacht as well as another vessel, according to The Wall Street Journal.

U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said in a Central Command briefing Tuesday that allied forces have not found any evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but the Bush administration claims the discovery of stashes of gas masks and plastic suits in military and Baath Party offices means the regime may plan to use chemical weapons in the future.

Other key developments in the last 24 hours:

  • Appearing to signal to Hussein that the option of exile is still open, Saudi Arabia foreign minister Prince Saud said Tuesday that the Iraqi president should make a sacrifice for his country and step down, according to NBC News. In response, Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan said at a news conference in Baghdad, "Go to hell. You are too much of a nothing to say a word addressed to a leader of Iraq."

  • An Iraqi general captured in the last 48 hours gave interrogators tactical information that will give coalition forces an advantage, according to Gen. Brooks.

  • Civilians in Umm Qasr have informed coalition forces of the whereabouts of paramilitary and Baath Party officials in the city, according to Fox News.

  • Three U.S. journalists who were missing for more than a week arrived safely in Jordan on Tuesday, according to MSNBC. All three were held by Iraqi authorities, questioned and released.

  • A U.S. warplane hit two buses carrying civilians in western Iraq, according to Iraq's information minister. U.S. intelligence was investigating the matter, according to Central Command.

  • A Kuwaiti army soldier, who claimed he was taking a shortcut, was shot and wounded by U.S. troops for driving too close to a military camp, according to CNN quoting a Kuwaiti Defense Ministry spokesperson. The soldier was treated and released at a U.S. medical unit.

  • U.S. Special Forces continue to explore the region near the Iran/Iraq border, looking for a link between Hussein's regime and al Qaeda. In northern Iraq, several training camps of Ansar al-Islam have been hit by coalition air strikes. The Kurdish radical Islamic group is believed by U.S. intelligence to have received support from both Hussein and al Qaeda.

  • Two Kurds, an Egyptian and a Somali believed to be linked to Ansar al-Islam were arrested in Italy on Monday as they prepared to head to Iraq, according to CNN.

  • Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak warned Tuesday that a long U.S.-led war and occupation of Iraq would result in an increase in Islamic militancy. "If there is one [Osama] bin Laden now, there will be 100 bin Ladens afterward," Mubarak said in a televised speech to Egyptian military leaders.

  • Shortly after landing on the USS Constellation on Tuesday, a Navy aircraft slid off the flight deck and into the ocean. The two pilots ejected into the water, and swimmers from a helicopter rescued them.

  • President Bush will travel to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, on Thursday, where he will thank Marines for their role in the war.

  • The latest casualty count: 68 U.S. and British troops killed, 24 missing. Total Iraqis killed unknown. 8,000 Iraqi prisoners of war.

    — Joe D'Angelo, Corey Moss and Ethan Zindler

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