[This story was updated on 04.07.2003 at 9:24 p.m. ET.]
As coalition forces intensified their presence in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad on day 20 of Operation Iraqi Freedom, citizen uprisings against Saddam Hussein’s regime were reported there and in Basra.
A bloody conflict involving the paramilitary group Fedayeen Saddam was said to have taken place in Baghdad, where 35 Iraqi soldiers were killed in three different areas of the city, according to Iranian media reports. (Click for map of the battlefield.)
In Basra, where British forces are attempting to control the city, citizens attacked Iraqi militia, killing several troops, and looted a state bank, according to Fox News. (Click here for images from the front) .
Reports from both cities were unconfirmed by U.S. news agencies and the Pentagon. The uprisings come as the Iraqi National Congress, a group that opposes Hussein’s regime, is joining the coalition campaign. A 700-strong unit dubbing itself the 1st Battalion Free Iraqi Forces began deployment near Nasiriya in the south, according to CNN, and the number of forces in central and southern Iraq is expected to increase.
Elsewhere on Monday, in an agricultural factory near Kerbala, in central Iraq, the 101st Airborne Division found a large cache of artillery, including what may be a “smoking gun,” proof that Iraq possessed chemical weapons. Initial tests revealed to be inconclusive, though a second examination tested positive for nerve and blister agents, according to CNN. Still, the chemicals could simply be a pesticide. Further testing is required.
More convincing is the report from National Public Radio, which claims U.S. forces found approximately 20 medium-range missiles, BM-21s, equipped with sarin and mustard gas near Baghdad. A 1st Marine Division officer told NPR that the weapons were “ready to fire.”
Concern about Hussein’s ability to use chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction was among the reasons cited by the Bush administration for invading Iraq.
Explosions were heard in Baghdad through Monday night and Tuesday morning, capping off a weekend in which U.S. forces entered Baghdad. One hundred armored vehicles rolled deep into the heart of Baghdad Saturday, seizing two of Hussein’s prized palaces and, according to CNN, toppling a 40-foot statue of the leader that had stood over the parade grounds at Zawra Park. Troops encountered heavy fighting along the way and suffered at least four deaths as Republican Guard and other Iraqi forces defended key parts of the city.
The objective of the latest incursion was not to establish an ongoing presence in Baghdad but to make the point that U.S.-led forces could invade that capital at the time of their choosing, according to a U.S. military spokesperson.
As the battle for Baghdad escalates, the streets in the city are now vacant, with the exception of U.S. forces, Iraqi troops and ambulances. Hospitals in Baghdad reportedly have been swamped in the last two days with injured civilians and troops.
Reports from the Pentagon said that between Monday morning and Tuesday morning local time, coalition planes will have flown 1,700 sorties, including 375 strikes on Baghdad. And as part of their plan to surround all major Iraqi cities, ground forces approached the highway connecting Mosul, the largest Iraqi city remaining under regime control, to Kirkuk, planning to cut off those cities from each other.
In Basra, 60 British tanks and armored personnel carriers met occasional heavy resistance as they rumbled into the center of Iraq’s second largest city on Monday. Five British troops were killed, according to officials.
In a Pentagon briefing on Monday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Hussein “no longer runs much of Iraq” and that “he’s either dead or injured or not willing to show himself.”
However, the Iraqi leadership remained defiant, declaring that its forces had repelled American efforts to take control of the capital. Standing atop the roof of a hotel where most foreign reporters in Baghdad are located, Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf peered out over the city and said, “The infidels are committing suicide by the hundreds on the gates of Baghdad. God has given victory to the soldiers and Iraq.”
Ignoring U.S. tanks just a few hundred yards away, Sahaf continued, “Be assured, Baghdad is safe, protected. Iraqis are heroes. As our leader, Saddam Hussein, said, God is grilling their stomachs in hell. We will continue to slaughter them. Their graves will be here in Baghdad.”
“Do not believe those liars,” he told Reuters. “I request you not to believe what the Americans are saying.”
Iraqis were effective in one raid on Monday, when one of their missiles hit a U.S. communications center south of Baghdad, killing two U.S. soldiers and two journalists (a reporter for the Spanish newspaper El Mundo and a German photographer) and wounding 15 people.
Other recent key developments:
— Joe D’Angelo, Corey Moss and Ethan Zindler