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Coalition Bombing Raids Continue, Heavy Fighting in Nasiriya - 2003-03-29

U.S.-led forces are stepping up their bombardment of Baghdad, targeting key government installations in the center of the Iraqi capital. Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accused Iraqi neighbor Syria of allowing weapons shipments into Iraq.

U.S. Apache helicopter gunships have raided Republican Guard positions south of Baghdad. Officials say two of the helicopters crash-landed, but all crew members escaped injury.

In southern Iraq, coalition forces engaged in heavy fighting with Iraqi troops in Nasiriya. British troops outside of the city of Basra say Iraqi units fired on hundreds of civilians who were trying to flee the besieged city. The British government is investigating a report that a British soldier was killed by a U.S. warplane in a "friendly fire" incident.

In central Iraq, fighting was reported near Diwaniyah and Najaf.

VOA's Alisha Ryu, who is with U.S. forces in central Iraq, said Iraqi militia groups, known as the Fedayeen, are proving tougher than expected. "I think [the soldiers] understand that this is not going to be a quick war, as a lot of people, perhaps, had hoped at the very beginning. Certainly, the harrassment by the Fedayeen and these militia groups has been a factor," she said.

Coalition forces dropped at least two so-called "bunker buster" bombs on a communications tower in Baghdad. Each bomb weighs more than 2,000 kilograms each. Coalition bombs also hit the Iraqi Information Ministry in central Baghdad early Saturday.

U.S. officials are looking into Iraqi reports that the intense coalition bombing of Baghdad killed about 50 people in one of the city's marketplaces.

Meanwhile a large explosion rocked a major shopping mall in Kuwait early Saturday. Kuwaiti officials say the blast in Kuwait City was caused by a low-flying Iraqi missile, which fell into the sea. No casualties are reported, although the explosion is reported to have caused extensive damage.

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld issued a stern warning to Syria not to help Iraq. "We have information that shipments of military supplies have been crossing the border from Syria into Iraq, including night vision goggles," he said. "These deliveries post a direct threat to the lives of coalition forces. We consider such trafficking as hostile acts and will hold the Syrian government accountable for such shipments."

Syria denied the allegations, saying the United States is trying to cover up crimes against Iraqi civilians.

Mr. Rumsfeld also had sharp words for Iran, which he says has been training and equipping an anti-Saddam group called the Badr Corps. He said hundreds of Badr Corps members are already inside Iraq and that many more are in Iran, near the Iraqi border. "We will hold the Iranian government responsible for [Badr Corps] actions and will view Badr Corps activity inside Iraq as unhelpful. Armed Badr Corps members found in Iraq will have to be treated as combatants," he said.

On the diplomatic front, the U.S. State Department says authorities have thwarted the plans of Iraqi intelligence agents to attack American interests in two foreign countries. In a hastily-arranged news conference Friday, Spokesman Richard Boucher did not identify the two countries. "In both cases, operatives were arrested and terrorist material confiscated. The planned attacks were not successful," he said.

Senior officials say both plots were in the Middle East. News reports say the alleged terrorists had conventional explosives rather than chemical or biological weapons.

Washington this month asked 60 countries hosting Iraqi embassies to expel Iraqi diplomats and freeze assets in anticipation of a war-induced change of government in Baghdad.

In New York, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to resume shipment of humanitarian aid to Iraq through the Oil for Food program. German Ambassador Gunter Pleuger said the council is unified in its desire to help the Iraqi people. "I think this was a good day for the United Nations, a good day for the Security Council, and, I hope, also a good day for the suffering people of Iraq," he said.

The Oil for Food program had been suspended before the conflict began. It had provided food for about 60 percent of Iraq's population. U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte said the United States will take a leading role in delivering humanitarian relief. "The United States will facilitate the necessary coordination on the ground in Iraq between coalition authorities and the United Nations and associated relief agency staff as oil-for-food supplies and other humanitarian assistance arrive and are distributed, as circumstances on the ground permit," he said.

The United Nations also has launched a world-wide appeal for an additional $2 billion for the immediate emergency needs of Iraqis.

Britain's Sir Galahad was the first supply ship to arrive in the southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr Friday. The ship had been delayed from off-loading its relief supplies for several days, as coalition forces and dolphins worked to remove mines from the waters.