U.S. aircraft and cruise missiles pounded Baghdad early on Monday, while ground forces in south central Iraq reported killing and capturing scores of paramilitary fighters and Republican Guard troops.
Coalition warplanes have been pummeling Baghdad with air strikes throughout the night and into the morning. The Iraqi Information Ministry and a presidential palace were hit in some of the latest attacks by Tomahawk cruise missiles and bombs. The air raids also targeted Iraqi Republican Guard troops, who are entrenched around the capital.
South of Baghdad, American soldiers say they killed about 100 Iraqi paramilitary fighters and captured others in battles near Najaf and Samana.
The commander of coalition forces, U.S. Army General Tommy Franks, says allied troops are now within 100 kilometers of Baghdad on multiple fronts. But they are apparently in no rush to assault the Iraqi capital until air strikes and artillery have ground down its defenders.
VOA correspondent Alysha Ryu, who is traveling with U.S. forces in central Iraq, says coalition units have captured dozens of Iraqi troops in the town of Hindiyah, near Karbala, about 80 kilometers southwest of Baghdad. But she says senior officers tell her this is not yet the start of the full push on Baghdad. "This is not the main thrust of the attacks. This is what is known as sort of probing attacks to see what the strength of the Republican Guard there is," says Ms. Ryu. "And this will probably continue for another couple of days."
In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld predicted Iraqi resistance would stiffen even more as American troops approach Baghdad. "There may be some very tough days ahead, because as we move forward and have to deal with the Republican Guard, that very likely will be the most difficult fighting the coalition will face," he says.
Coalition troops have already met fiercer-than-expected resistance from both regular and irregular Iraqi forces as they sought over the past week to consolidate their supply lines.
In the southern town of Nasiriyah, where fighting has been raging for more than a week, U.S. Marines secured buildings held by an Iraqi infantry division they say contained large caches of weapons and chemical decontamination equipment.
The Marines also moved into the town of Shatra, near Nasiriyah. Alysha Ryu reports they targeted offices of the ruling Baath Party in the town because of information they received from villagers about a marine who had been missing for two days. "This was a town that was specifically targeted because it was discovered that a marine's body was dragged through the streets there two days ago," she says. "He was listed as missing. They found his body there, and it was paraded around. So this was a bit of a personal mission for the Marines."
But the main objective of the Shatra operation was to kill or capture senior Iraqi officials the Marines believe have been directing guerrilla attacks on U.S. supply convoys.