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US Commander Cites 'Rapid' Progress, 'Sporadic' Resistance in Iraq - 2003-03-24


The commander of U.S.-led forces in Iraq says his troops are making "rapid" progress, despite what he calls "sporadic" resistance from Iraqi soldiers and militia. Meanwhile, an Iraqi television broadcast showed President Saddam Hussein predicting victory.

General Tommy Franks says the campaign to oust Saddam Hussein from power has made "rapid and in some cases dramatic" progress.

He told reporters in Qatar that the "sporadic" resistance is coming from a variety of Iraqi units, including what are described as "irregular" Iraqi troops, elite Republican Guard troops, and forces from Saddam's Fedayeen, the Baath Party's paramilitary organization.

"I actually have seen no surprise here, and I think that our people on the ground have not seen a surprise," he said. "There are people in the Iraqi Army, whether it is the Special Republican Guard or Fedayeen, who have a lot of allegiance to this regime."

U.S. forces launched a fresh attack on Iraqi troops in the southern city of Nasiriya, the site of heavy fighting Sunday.

U.S. warplanes continue to bomb the capital, Baghdad, as well as military targets in northern Iraq. General Franks confirmed that a U.S. Apache attack helicopter is missing and its two-man crew is unaccounted for. Iraqi television showed pictures of what it said was a U.S. helicopter apparently intact south of Baghdad.

In London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said coalition forces are less than 100-kilometers from Baghdad, near the city of Karbala and are preparing to face Iraqi Republican Guard units.

"As we speak they are about 60 miles [95 kilometers] south of Baghdad near Karbala. It is a little way from there that they will encounter the Medina division of the Republican Guard, who are defending the route to Baghdad. This will plainly be a crucial moment," he said.

VOA correspondent Alisha Ryu, who is with U.S. troops in central Iraq, says American forces are constantly trying to secure their positions as they move north.

"But the most important thing right now is security, because sporadic gunfire and mortars are still giving U.S. forces problems on the ground in this area," she reported. "Just minutes ago, U.S. troops chased an Iraqi militiaman who attempted to lob a mortar in their direction."

Iraqi television also broadcast new images of Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi leader was seen reading a prepared statement predicting victory over U.S. forces. He also referred to the recent fighting in Basra and Umm Qasr.

U.S. and British officials said they believe the broadcast was previously recorded.

General Franks told reporters that coalition forces have captured about 3,000 Iraqi prisoners of war. But he could not provide new information on the Americans taken prisoner Sunday by the Iraqis.

The images of the captured Americans broadcast on al-Jazeera television have shaken relatives back home.

Anecita Hudson told NBC television she is praying for the safe return of her son, Army Specialist Joseph Hudson. "I just want him to go home," she said. "I wish the president would do something about this and get this prisoners out. Not only my son, but everybody."

VOA's Cairo correspondent, Greg Lamotte, knows firsthand what it is like to be taken prisoner by the Iraqis. He was held for five days during the 1991 Gulf War while working as a journalist for CNN.

"My experience, after about the third day, was that you are so worn out from being afraid that you get to a point where you do not worry about being killed anymore," he said. "You become more concerned about spending a heck of a lot of time in some Iraqi prison somewhere."

General Franks told reporters in Qatar that he hopes mine-clearing operations in Iraqi waters will allow humanitarian shipments to begin arriving in the next few days.

At the United Nations, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan told reporters that residents of the southern city of Basra are facing a humanitarian crisis. He urged the U.N. Security Council to resume the flow of aid as soon as possible.

"We should not forget that 60 percent of them have been dependent on the Oil for Food scheme, and this is why the Council and myself are determined to do whatever we can to keep that pipeline open," he said.

Finally, General Franks said coalition troops are chasing down leads on the possible locations of storage sites for chemical and biological weapons. But military officials have not been able to confirm the existence of those weapons at the sites.