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US Ground Troops Involved in Fierce Firefight in Central Iraq - 2003-03-26

Fighting in Iraq continues in several locations with U.S. warplanes again hitting Baghdad and American ground troops involved in a fierce engagement in central Iraq.

The bombing in Baghdad knocked Iraqi television off the air for a time. U.S. cruise missiles also targeted Iraqi government communications and satellite links at several locations in and around the capital.

Iraq says two U.S. missiles struck a residential area, killing at least 14 people. A U.S. military spokesman in Qatar said he had no information on the incident.

Coalition aircraft also launched new bombing raids on targets in northern Iraq.

Earlier, U.S. officials reported hundreds of Iraqi troops killed in a fierce firefight with American troops near the town of Najaf, more than 100 kilometers south of Baghdad.

Meanwhile, U.S. defense officials say that coalition commanders are shifting the focus of their ground campaign to concentrate on defeating Saddam Hussein's Fedayeen militia and other irregular forces before launching an assault on Baghdad.

U.S. military officials say Iraqi militiamen continue to fire at U.S. forces heading through south and central Iraq. U.S. Army General Vince Brooks briefed reporters at the U.S. Central Command headquarters in Qatar. "The practices that have been conducted by these paramilitaries and by these others who are out there, sometimes in uniform, sometimes not in uniform, are more akin to the behaviors of global terrorists than they are to a nation," he said.

General Brooks also says U.S. Marines found 3,000 chemical protective suits at a hospital in Nasiriya, raising concerns that Iraqi troops might be preparing to use chemical weapons to stop the advance on Baghdad.

Sandstorms continue to hamper coalition ground and air forces. Correspondent Alisha Ryu is with U.S. army troops in central Iraq. "Of course, the weather is still hampering air operations," she said. "The helicopters are still grounded for the most part this morning. The winds have picked up again and they are creating quite a visibility hazard. The visibility is quite low."

There was some encouraging news on humanitarian assistance. The first sizable relief convoy rolled into the port of Umm Qasr in southern Iraq loaded with food and water.

But even as local residents welcomed the aid shipment, Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf continued to insist in Baghdad that coalition forces do not control Umm Qasr. "And they tried to give the impression, deliberately, that they are in control of Umm Qasr and that is not true," he said.

Coalition forces are anxious to get relief supplies into the southern city of Basra, but the security situation there remains uncertain.

In London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair told Parliament that he believes there was a limited uprising against the Iraqi government in the southern city of Basra," he said. "Once people know that Saddam's grip on power is weakened, then there is no doubt at all that they wish to opt for freedom rather than repression."

British military officials say Iraqi troops fired mortars on civilians in Basra during the uprising. Iraqi officials deny the account.

President Bush says that coalition forces will be "relentless in pursuit of victory" in Iraq.

The president spoke at the headquarters of the U.S. military's Central Command in Tampa, Florida. "We cannot predict the final day of the Iraqi regime, but I can assure you and I assure the long-suffering people of Iraq, there will be a day of reckoning for the Iraqi regime and that day is drawing near," he said.

Later, Mr. Bush will discuss the war with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland.