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Official: U.S. launches 'major' offensive in Iraq

U.S. soldier missing in action rescued

The Pentagon said Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch has been rescued after being listed as missing in action near Nasiriya on March 23.
The Pentagon said Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch has been rescued after being listed as missing in action near Nasiriya on March 23.

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(CNN) -- As the Pentagon defended questions about its troop strength in Iraq Tuesday, a military official said U.S. forces have launched a major ground offensive against at least two Iraqi Republican Guard divisions.

The new offensive targeted against at least two Republican Guard divisions -- the Medina and Baghdad -- south of the Iraqi capital, in what could be the beginning of the battle for Baghdad.

One Pentagon official said U.S. forces are engaging Iraqi Republican Guard troops in a major fight in Karbala.

The new offensive came after U.S.-led coalition forces in the Persian Gulf region began receiving a battle plan suggesting the focus of the ground war would soon shift to Baghdad, according to U.S. military officials.

Gen. Tommy Franks, chief of U.S. Central Command, will not have to consult with President Bush or Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld before moving on the Iraqi capital, officials told CNN.

Franks is not locked into a time frame and will seize the "tactical advantage" when the time is right, the officials said.

Missing U.S. soldier rescued

Meanwhile, U.S. Central Command announced a U.S. Army POW held captive in Iraq had been rescued from an Iraqi hospital and returned to a "coalition controlled area."

Pentagon officials confirmed the rescue of Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch, 19, who had been listed as missing in action after intense fighting near Nasiriya on March 23. (Full story)

Lynch, a supply clerk with the 507th Maintenance Company from Fort Bliss, Texas, suffered multiple gunshot wounds in the ambush that led to her capture and had to be moved from the hospital with special care, Pentagon sources said. (What happened to the 507th?)

A relative told CNN from Lynch's hometown of Palestine, West Virginia, that she was taken to a hospital in coalition-controlled territory and Pentagon sources said she was in stable condition.

The rescue operation was planned for several days and involved U.S. Marines and special operations forces, the Pentagon sources said.

Myers: Questions 'not good for our troops'

The renewed military activity in Iraq came hours after Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers said those who question the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq are "absolutely wrong" and their comments are "not good for our troops."

"It is not helpful to have those kind of comments come out when we've got troops in combat, because, first of all, they're false, they're absolutely wrong, they bear no resemblance to the truth, and it's just harmful to our troops that are out there fighting very bravely, very courageously," Myers said at a Pentagon briefing.

Myers' comments came after days of news reports that some retired military experts -- and some commanders in the field -- have raised questions about the war plan.

Chief among the complaints is that the Pentagon did not anticipate the level of resistance shown by Iraqi fighters and that coalition ground forces were spread too thin, without enough reinforcements. (Full story)

Other developments

• A message purported to be from Saddam to the people of Iraq on Tuesday cited "our time of honor" and called for jihad. "Don't give them a chance ... until they withdraw," the text of the statement read, referring to troops of the U.S.-led coalition. Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, not Saddam, delivered the televised statement, which said, "Long live our nation. God is great. And they will be the losers, the evil, the criminals." (Full story)

• Four ships carrying weapons of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division docked Tuesday at Kuwait City's Shuaibah port, and maintenance crews began unloading Apache helicopters, Abrams battle tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, and Humvee armored vehicles.

• Three American journalists reported missing for more than a week arrived safely in Jordan Tuesday. (Full story)

• In Kurd-dominated northern Iraq, Iraqi opposition forces took a town that was a suspected stronghold of the Islamic militia Ansar al-Islam. The group is a link between Iraq and al Qaeda, U.S. officials said. Kurdish fighters worked with U.S. Special Forces to destroy the operation, officials said, and they found equipment and documentation indicating the presence of chemical or biological weapons.

• Al-Sahaf said Tuesday a U.S. warplane struck two buses in western Iraq filled with human shields. Al-Sahaf accused coalition forces of "indiscriminately killing people." U.S. Central Command said it was "not aware of any reports" of such a U.S. airstrike and was investigating the allegation. (Full story)

Explosions could be seen and heard in Baghdad early Wednesday morning.

• Two U.S. Navy pilots survived a harrowing episode Tuesday in the Persian Gulf after their S-3B Viking aircraft slid off the USS Constellation flight deck shortly after touching down. The plane slipped left, hit safety netting and then plunged into the water. The pilots ejected into the water, and swimmers from a helicopter rescued them. (Full story)

• Intense coalition air raids subsided Tuesday in northern Iraq for the first time since hostilities began. With this abatement, five Shia recruits from southern Iraq surrendered to coalition forces along the northern front. One of the soldiers told CNN that Iraqi forces had "execution squads" to kill Iraqi deserters.

• British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw on Tuesday praised journalists working in Iraq, while warning against "snap judgments based on television pictures." (Full story)

CNN correspondents Christiane Amanpour, Jane Arraf, Bob Franken, Art Harris, Tom Mintier, Nic Robertson, Walter Rodgers, Brent Sadler and Ben Wedeman and producer Mike Mount contributed to this report.

EDITOR'S NOTE: CNN's policy is to not report information that puts operational security at risk.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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