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War in Iraq Continues on Several Fronts - 2003-03-27

The battle to remove Saddam Hussein from power continues on several fronts. Aided by improving weather conditions, American paratroopers seized an airfield in northern Iraq, while coalition troops fought Iraqi soldiers and militia in central and southern Iraq.

The arrival of 1,000 U.S. paratroopers in northern Iraq signals the long-awaited opening of a northern front as coalition forces prepare to move on Baghdad.

Dozens of explosions were heard in and around Baghdad as Iraqi anti-aircraft fire lit up the sky.

Ground fighting continued in central Iraq near the town of Najaf, about 150 kilometers south of Baghdad.

Improving weather allowed coalition warplanes to once again take to the skies in support of troops on the ground.

VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu is with U.S. troops near Najaf. "I just witnessed a plume of smoke going up in the air where U.S. Air Force jets have just bombed a Fedayeen headquarters barracks in the northeast section of Najaf, southwest of Baghdad," she said. "This was a target that was detected a few days ago, but because of the weather conditions, the sandstorms, they were not able to get to it."

U.S. military officials say the Iraqis are resorting to terror tactics to force young men to fight for the regime.

"Our field commanders report that in the vicinity of Najaf, as one example, Iraqi regime forces are seizing children from their homes, telling their families that the males must fight for the regime or they will all face execution," said U.S. Army Brigadier General Vince Brooks, who briefed reporters at Central Command headquarters in Qatar.

British military officials are also reporting progress against Iraqi units near the southern city of Basra. Britain's military chief of staff, Admiral Michael Boyce, told reporters in London that coalition warplanes came to the aid of ground forces near Basra and destroyed a column of Iraqi tanks. "With the firepower from this [air] support combined with that of armed helicopters and artillery, the enemy tanks were halted and in the fact the brigade commander has now confirmed that a total of 19 enemy T-55 tanks were destroyed," he said.

Relief efforts in southern Iraq are being slowed by the discovery of additional mines near the port of Umm Qasr. One British ship and two Australian merchant vessels with tons of wheat, water, and other supplies are waiting to head into the port.

In Baghdad, Iraq's Health Minister said Thursday that 350 Iraqi civilians have been killed and more than 4,000 injured since the war began last week. Iraqi officials continue to insist that U.S. cruise missiles were responsible for the deaths of 15 Iraqis near a market in northern Baghdad on Wednesday.

U.S. officials say they did not target the market area and General Vince Brooks told reporters in Qatar that there are other possible explanations for the explosions. "We think it is entirely possible that this may have been, in fact, an Iraqi missile that either went up and came down or, given the behaviors of the regime lately, it may have been a deliberate attack [by the Iraqi government] inside of town," he said.

President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are discussing the progress of the war and plans for a post-war Iraq at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland.