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Coalition Battles Republican Guard Troops Near Baghdad - 2003-03-26

U.S.-led coalition troops are battling Iraqi Republican Guard units near Baghdad as they press the campaign to topple the government of Saddam Hussein. With the war in Iraq about to enter its seventh day, reports are also coming in of protests against Iraqi rule in the country's second largest city of Basra in the south.

A British military spokesman says there are indications of what could be a revolt against Saddam Hussein's rule by Basra's Shiite majority, with reports emerging of significant numbers of people taking to the streets. A British journalist embedded with the military in the area reports Iraqi troops have been firing on protesters, with British forces firing back at Iraqi troops from the outskirts of the city.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld could not confirm that an uprising is underway but warned coalition forces are not yet in a position to be supportive. "People will rise up. Let there be no doubt," he said. "These are a repressed people but I hope and pray they will do it at a time when there are sufficient forces nearby to be helpful to them rather than at a time when it simply costs them their life and it's a wasted life."

Iraq's information minister strongly denies reports of an uprising in Basra. It was there, at the end of the Gulf War 12 years ago, that a revolt by majority Shiites was brutally suppressed by Saddam Hussein's forces.

As they approach Baghdad, U.S. troops have been firing artillery barrages at Iraq's Republican Guard, among Saddam Hussein's best trained and equipped and presumably most loyal forces. The artillery attacks came despite a blinding sand, wind and rain storm described by VOA's Alisha Ryu who is with the U.S. army's 3rd infantry division. "All of a sudden, we had pitch black, I mean pitch black to the point that we could not see anything in front of us, not even an inch in front of us," she said.

With the land war moving closer to the Iraqi capital, there are increasing concerns that Iraqi forces could unleash chemical or biological weapons as a last line of defense. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has seen what he calls scraps of intelligence indicating the Iraqi military could be preparing for that, after U.S. soldiers disarming Iraqi fighters found some were equipped with newly-made gas masks.

"This is the behavior of desperate men," said Mr. Rumsfeld. "Iraqi authorities know their days are numbered. And while the Iraqi regime is on the way out, it is important to know that it can still be brutal, particularly in the moments before it finally succumbs."

Military commanders continue to say the war is going as planned, but after some setbacks including 14 captured or missing soldiers and the deaths of at least 40 others the U.S. Defense Secretary warned Tuesday against expectations of a quick victory. "We're still, needless to say, closer to the beginning than the end," he said.