Accessibility links

Battle for Baghdad 'Close at Hand,' says Blair - 2003-03-24

Britain says the battle for Baghdad is close at hand. Prime Minister Tony Blair says difficult days lie ahead in the Iraq war, but the strategy is unfolding as planned.

Prime Minister Blair told parliament the key objective of reaching Baghdad is within sight.

"Coalition forces, led by the American Fifth Corps, are on the way to Baghdad," he said. "As we speak they are about 60 miles [95 kilometers] south of Baghdad near Kabala. It is a little way from there that they will encounter the Medina division of the Republican Guard, who are defending the route to Baghdad. This will plainly be a crucial moment."

Mr. Blair said the U.S. and British invasion of Iraq can expect stiff resistance from elite forces loyal to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

"Thousands of Iraqi soldiers have surrendered. Still more have simply left the field, their units disintegrating," he said. "But there are those, closest to Saddam, that are resisting and will resist strongly. They are the elite that are hated by the local population and have little to lose. There are bound, therefore, to be difficult days ahead but the strategy and its timing are proceeding according to plan."

Mr. Blair also paid tribute to and offered sympathy for the British and American troops who have died so far. Britain has lost 16 men in three separate air accidents, and two are missing in action. As Mr. Blair spoke, the defense ministry confirmed the first British combat death.