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US POW Rescued;  Heavy Fighting is Reported Near Karbala - 2003-04-02

U.S. military commanders say an American prisoner of war captured by Iraqi forces more than a week ago has been rescued by coalition forces. The news comes as American troops report heavy fighting with Iraqi Republican Guard units near Karbala, south of Baghdad, in what is being described as the first major ground battle with Saddam Hussein's best trained forces.

U.S. General Vincent Brooks made the announcement about the release of the American POW early Wednesday morning at Central Command headquarters in Qatar.

"Coalition forces have conducted a successful rescue mission of a U.S. Army prisoner of war held captive in Iraq," he said. "The soldier has been returned to a coalition controlled area."

The rescued POW is identified as a female soldier taken captive when her Army convoy took a wrong turn in Nasariyah more than a week ago and encountered enemy fire. In all, seven Americans have been listed as captured by Iraq since the start of the war. No word on whether this rescue was part of an attempt to free all of them or whether an operation may still be underway to free the others.

The announcement came on a night when the U.S. military reported a major battle underway between army troops and Iraqi Republican Guard units near Karbala, about 80 kilometers south of Baghdad.

U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard Myers told reporters earlier that allied attacks against the Republican Guard are paying off. "Some of them have been degraded to pretty low percentages of combat capability, below 50 percent," he said.

But VOA correspondent Alisha Ryu, who is attached to U.S. forces in central Iraq, reports Iraq is responding to losses by sending in reinforcements. "After days of those kinds of air strikes, the Iraqis have shown that they are losing quite a few of those troops, of those tanks," he said. "They're seen reinforcing the Republican Guards. The Iraqi military is bringing down, from the north, elements of Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar divisions."

These developments come amid more questions about the Iraqi leader himself after what was billed as a presidential address to the Iraqi people was delivered instead by the country's information minister. Mohammed al-Sahaf appeared on state television Tuesday night, reading a statement attributed to the Iraqi leader, telling the nation to launch a holy war against the U.S.-led invasion. The fact that Saddam Hussein did not deliver it himself immediately raised new questions about his whereabouts.

"The fact that Saddam Hussein did not show up for his televised speech today is interesting," said U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Mr. Rumsfeld continues to question whether an air raid on the first night of the war last month may have killed or wounded the Iraqi leader. "We'll know in good time whether Saddam Hussein's alive or dead," he said.

New waves of allied bombing are being reported across Iraq with more large explosions heard in Baghdad early Wednesday morning in some of the heaviest air strikes since the start of the war. Still, there was no indication that the Iraqi forces are ready to surrender.

That tough resistance has led to more questions, both from within the military and from a cast of retired generals, about whether coalition war planners may have misjudged the strength of Iraqi resolve. A testy Joint Chiefs chairman Myers denies the Pentagon misjudged the enemy and came close to accusing those who raise questions about war strategy, while American forces are fighting and dying, of undermining the military effort.

"It's just not very helpful," said General Myers. "I mean you have troops in combat, as most senior military would know, that's not the time to start putting different opinions, especially from senior people, on the table."

In widely publicized remarks last week, American general William Wallace, who commands Army forces in the Persian Gulf, said the military faced a longer war than it had planned because of unexpectedly tough Iraqi resistance.