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Coalition Forces in Iraq 'Advancing Day by Day' - 2003-03-27

The fighting in Iraq continued on several fronts in Thursday, aided by improving weather conditions throughout the country. Meanwhile, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair said they are committed to victory however long it takes.

After talks with Prime Minister Blair at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland, President Bush said U.S.-led forces are "advancing day by day" through Iraq.

But when pressed by a reporter as to how long the war might last, Mr. Bush said it was a matter of victory, not a timetable. "And the Iraqi people have got to know that, see," he said. "They got to know that they will be liberated and Saddam Hussein will be removed no matter how long it takes."

Prime Minister Blair says he and the president have agreed to press the United Nations to take additional steps to provide humanitarian relief for the people of Iraq. "The focus, the immediate focus, has got to be on the Oil for Food program because that is the thing we need to get sorted out at the United Nations, literally in the next few days," he said.

There were new military developments across Iraq Thursday.

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

Dozens of explosions were heard in and around the Iraqi capital Thursday 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 Thursday 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. 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," she said.

U.S. military officials say the Iraqis are resorting to terror tactics to force young men to fight for the regime. U.S. Army Brigadier General Vince Brooks briefed reporters at Central Command headquarters in Qatar. "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, " he said.

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 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. "So 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 inside of town," he said.

British military officials say they found another cache of about 100 chemical protective suits in southern Iraq, further proof, they say, that the Iraqi regime is prepared to use weapons of mass destruction.