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Baghdad Bombed Overnight; Ground Forces Advance - 2003-03-24

Baghdad has been battered overnight by bombs and missiles, as coalition ground forces continue to advance toward the Iraqi capital. The air strikes follow a day that American officials are calling the most difficult since the war on Iraq began five days ago.

Smoke was still rising from the Iraqi capital as dawn broke Monday following a night of intense air strikes.

A British military spokesman, Major Will MacKinlay, said coalition planes were targeting more strategic installations, "destroying ammunition dumps, barracks and communication facilities."

The strikes come as coalition ground forces advanced closer to Baghdad after facing stiff resistance Sunday in parts of southern Iraq.

The deputy-commander of the coalition, Lieutenant-General John Abizeid told reporters it was the toughest day so far in the conflict.

"Combat operations have met with resistance in a number of locations, the most notable of which is in the vicinity of An-Nasiriyah," said Gen. Abizeid. "United States Marines defeated an enemy attack there while sustaining a number of killed and wounded in the sharpest engagement of the war thus far."

American officials say nine soldiers were killed at Nasiriya and a dozen were captured or killed in an ambush in the area. Iraqi officials showed five captured American soldiers on al-Jazeera television, a move that U.S. officials criticized as a violation of the Geneva Convention on prisoners of war. Iraqi officials said the prisoners would be treated correctly.

U.S. troops also seized a chemical factory outside of Najaf and were examining it for signs of chemical weapons production.

General Abizeid said his troops have not found any weapons of mass destruction but believes that will change once they have taken Baghdad. "I have no doubt that we'll find weapons of mass destruction," he said, "but you shouldn't think it's going to happen tomorrow."

Coalition troops Monday continued to search for two British soldiers who are missing after coming under attack in southern Iraq. In all, three dozen coalition troops have been killed since the war began five days ago, one-third of these in combat.