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Coalition Forces Closing In on Baghdad - 2003-03-24

U.S.-led forces in Iraq are closing in on the Iraqi capital Baghdad, with coalition commanders warning some of the toughest fighting of the war may lie ahead. Meanwhile, a top Iraqi official tries to clear up questions about the status of Saddam Hussein.

With more bombs falling on Baghdad, the vanguard of coalition ground troops, the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division, is now reported to be about 80 kilometers south of the Iraqi capital, and allied forces have already begun striking at President Saddam Hussein's best trained Republican Guard units from the air.

"They have been hit, they will continue to be hit at points and places and times that make sense to us," said coalition commander General Tommy Franks.

General Franks says as allied troops close in on Baghdad, they continue to roll past population centers and enemy forces, including the Fedayeen, a feared militia founded by Saddam Hussein's son Uday.

"We've intentionally bypassed enemy formations to include paramilitary and the Fedayeen and so you can expect our clean up operations are going to be ongoing across the days in the future," he said.

But reporters traveling with coalition troops say the march toward Baghdad was stalled Monday by another approaching sandstorm.

"Visibility is down to several hundred meters again," said VOA's Alisha Ryu, who is with the advancing U.S. Army's 5th Corps in central Iraq. "There is a huge sandstorm coming in. We're told by Tuesday or Wednesday, that's the forecast. And if that front does come through, that means all the helicopters will be grounded. It's very, very difficult for the helicopters to fly in this kind of weather."

In Baghdad, deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz told reporters Saddam Hussein is in good shape and in full control of the armed forces - nearly a week after U.S. officials say he and other top Iraqi leaders may have been killed or injured in a missile attack at the start of the war. But at the Pentagon, General Stanley McChrystal continues to see more indications of a breakdown in the Iraqi military's command and control.

"We are seeing evidence that orders that are being issued are not being executed," he said.

Saddam Hussein appeared on Iraqi television Monday, but U.S. and British officials are questioning whether it may have been a videotape made before last week's attack.

"Clearly, there is still the possibility of Saddam Hussein's people issuing tape recordings," said British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon. "We're well aware that he spent many hours recently tape recording various messages. So I think we have to do a little more analysis of what was actually said to see whether or not that was in fact Saddam Hussein."

Baghdad claims two U.S. Apache attack helicopters were shot down by Iraqi farmers Monday. Two men who Iraq identified as the captured pilots later appeared on state television. But in Qatar, coalition commander Tommy Franks would only say that one chopper was missing and could not confirm the fate of the crew.

"We know that the attack helicopter did not get back and so we have a two man crew missing," he said. "I know with some precision how many helicopters have been shot down and I can assure you they that those events did not occur as a result of farmers."

Military officials now confirm that nine U.S. Marines have been killed in combat and a dozen American soldiers are listed as missing, after Sunday's heavy day of fighting, most of it near the town of Nassiriya. Five of the missing are presumed to be the POW's shown on Iraqi television.

The Pentagon is now demanding Iraq allow the Red Cross access to the Americans, saying the more than 50 Iraqi civilians and soldiers currently being held on U.S. naval vessels are receiving good medical care.