U.S. troops 'fighting in Baghdad'
BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- U.S.-led coalition forces launched a raid through central Baghdad early Saturday, beginning new coordinated ground and air efforts designed to tackle the heart of Saddam Hussein's regime and convince its military to surrender.
In the words of one Pentagon official, the Baghdad portion of the warplan officially began.
An explosion after nightfall struck the city near the Palestine Hotel, where many international journalists stay. Then shortly after midnight, a new round of explosions was heard. The source was not immediately known.
The raid by two task forces of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division came shortly after dawn Saturday. Soldiers moved from south of Baghdad north to the Tigris River and then west toward the airport, said Maj. Gen. Victor Renuart, coalition spokesman, adding that they faced only sporadic resistance.
Sources in Baghdad spotted U.S. forces as close to the city's center as the Saddam Bridge near Baghdad University, about 1.5 kilometers from Saddam's presidential palace, as well as in the southwest.
They also told CNN's Nic Robertson they believe the coalition set up a military checkpoint on the city's northern outskirts.
Iraqi forces massed in the southwest and set up tanks and artillery in a popular park in central Baghdad near a small zoo, the sources told Robertson.
Iraq has also placed tanks in some residential areas, blocking off streets, the sources said.
Video showed heavy fighting at what an Associated Press journalist on the scene said was a barracks of Iraq's Republican Guard in southwestern Baghdad. Iraq insisted the incident was actually "far from Baghdad."
As part of the ongoing assault on the Iraqi capital, coalition planes will fly over the city at all times to provide protection for ground troops, said Lt. Gen. T. Michael Moseley, in charge of the coalition's Air Force in Iraq.
In a statement read by Iraq's information minister on Iraqi TV, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein acknowledged coalition troops were "on" Baghdad, but that the coalition's focus on the capital weakened its efforts elsewhere.
"To harm the enemy more and more, go against the enemy and destroy the enemy," the statement said. "Follow the plans that you got in writing."
Outside the capital, CNN's Walt Rodgers, embedded with the 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, reported Baath party members and some Iraqi officers are slipping Iraqi army trucks into civilian convoys headed west to Jordan and more likely, northwest to Syria -- a "mass exodus," one officer said. (Full story)
According to U.S. Army sources, the Iraqi soldiers, their families and all of their personal belongings are joining the convoys because they know the coalition will not call in airstrikes on the them.
The push into Baghdad followed overnight heavy airstrikes and artillery barrages from coalition troops occupying the airport they renamed Baghdad International, about 18 kilometers (11 miles) southwest of Baghdad.
But Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf categorically denied that U.S. forces held the airport, telling reporters Saturday that U.S. forces were "slaughtered" at the airport. (Full story)
Sahaf also denied that U.S. forces were in the Iraqi capital, saying the Americans were playing tricks.
In a videotaped address broadcast by Iraqi television Friday evening, President Saddam Hussein urged Iraqis to fight coalition forces "with what you have available."
Later Friday, Arabic-language TV stations broadcast video of a man purporting to be Saddam greeting a small, cheering crowd on a Baghdad street. It was not clear when that footage was shot.
After seeing the video, U.S. officials said it is likely that Saddam is alive, something that has been questioned since the "decapitation" airstrike that opened the war. (Full story)
In other developments:
• Coalition aircraft early Saturday struck the Basra home of an Iraqi general known as "Chemical Ali," the man who ordered Iraqi forces to use chemical weapons against Kurds in northern Iraq in 1988, the U.S. Central Command said. U.S. Central Command offered no report of damage.
• British forces in southern Iraq said Saturday they had found boxes containing hundreds of human remains in a warehouse near Az Zubayr. There was no immediate indication of the nationalities of the dead, and it appeared they had died some time ago. (Full story)
• The Pentagon confirmed Saturday that nine bodies found during Wednesday's raid to rescue U.S. POW Pfc. Jessica Lynch were U.S. soldiers, previously listed as missing in action. They were part of a convoy that was ambushed on March 23, the Pentagon said. (Full story)
• Two Marine pilots were killed early Saturday morning when their AH-1W "Super Cobra" attack helicopter crashed in central Iraq, according to the U.S. Central Command.
• A U.S. soldier has been formally charged with two counts of murder in a grenade attack in Kuwait last month. (Murder charge)
• U.S. President George W. Bush will meet British Prime Minister Tony Blair next week in Northern Ireland to discuss the war in Iraq and peace efforts in the Middle East and Northern Ireland, the White House said Friday. (Full story)
• Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix said Friday that he is extremely interested to finally learn if Iraq does possess chemical or biological weapons -- one of the reasons the United States and Britain said made it necessary to invade the country. (Full story)
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