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Sandstorms Slow Coalition Advance on Baghdad - 2003-03-25

In Iraq, fierce sandstorms have slowed U.S.-led forces heading for Baghdad. But President Bush says there is no doubt about the outcome of the war.

Powerful sandstorms blackened the skies over central Iraq Tuesday, slowing coalition forces closing on Baghdad from the south and west. The weather made it difficult for both land vehicles and helicopters to move about safely, though U.S. and British warplanes continued to pound Republican Guard positions on the outskirts of Baghdad.

In southern Iraq, U.S. Marines crossed the Euphrates River after intense fighting near the town of Nasiriyah.

U.S. Air Force General Victor Renuart told reporters at coalition headquarters in Qatar that while U.S. led forces have suffered some casualties in the fighting, Iraqi casualties have been much heavier.

"The bottom line is we are on track and will deal with these irregular and regular forces wherever we find them," he said.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld cautioned those expecting a quick end to the war.

"We are still, needless to say, closer to the beginning than the end," he said.

Earlier, Secretary Rumsfeld briefed President Bush on the fighting in Iraq. Afterward, the president said U.S. troops are making "good progress".

"We cannot know the duration of this war, yet we know its outcome. We will prevail," the president said. "The Iraqi regime will be disarmed, the Iraqi regime will be ended, the Iraqi people will be free and our world will be more secure and peaceful."

The president is asking Congress for nearly $75 billion in emergency funds to help pay for the war and rebuilding afterward.

On the battlefield, the sandstorms in central Iraq are making the push northward extremely difficult.

"It's hard. I mean, like he said, sand gets in your eyes, it is hard to breathe, you know," said Private Steven Herbstreith, who is with the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division in central Iraq. "We are pushing through it. That is what we get paid to do. That is why we are here.

The head of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, says the toughest battles still lie ahead as coalition forces prepare to face off against Republican Guard units near Baghdad.

VOA correspondent Alisha Ryu is with U.S. forces in central Iraq as they prepare for what could be a fierce battle with the Republican Guard.

"I think the U.S. Army wants to send a clear message to the rest of the Republican Guard forces out there that if we can neutralize one of these divisions, the others will get the message that maybe they should lay down their arms and not fight," she said.

As coalition forces get closer to Baghdad, there are growing fears that the Iraqi regime could order chemical attacks in a last-ditch effort to stop the advance.

U.S. Army Major Daniel Goodale-Porter says battle planners believe the chemical attacks could come once coalition forces draw to within about 50 kilometers of Baghdad.

"The 'Red Line' is a physical line that we draw on the map that we think Saddam Hussein and his folks are going to feel pressured enough to actually use weapons of mass destruction," he said.

Further south, Iraqi officials have denied a report of a public uprising in Iraq's second largest city, Basra. Earlier, British military officials declared the city a military target after Iraqi forces took up positions among civilians.

The commander of British forces in the Persian Gulf, Air Marshal Brian Burridge, says his troops have encountered stiff resistance from militias loyal to Saddam Hussein.

"These are bunches of determined men who will fight hard because they have no future in the new Iraq," he said.

British forces want to secure Basra for the delivery of badly needed humanitarian aid. The United Nations World Food Program is reportedly asking for one billion dollars in donations to provide humanitarian assistance to Iraqi civilians.

U.S. military officials in Qatar say they are building camps for Iraqi prisoners of war and that Red Cross officials will have full access to them. They also called on the Iraqi military to allow Red Cross visits for American prisoners of war.

VOA TV's Deborah Block is with U.S. Marine units in southern Iraq who have come upon dozens of surrendering troops.

"They looked very tired, very worn out," she said. "And I could tell by the way they were grouped that they were most likely soldiers who had given up."

In Washington, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld says more than 3,500 Iraqi fighters have been taken prisoner by coalition forces.