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Coalition Forces Test Republican Guard in Press Toward Baghdad - 2003-03-31

U.S.-led coalition forces continue to target Iraqi positions from the air and on the ground in preparation for an expected push on Baghdad.

Coalition warplanes and missiles again targeted Iraqi government sites in and around Baghdad Monday, including presidential palaces and the Information Ministry.

U.S. and British warplanes went after Republican Guard positions arrayed around the capital, and pounded Iraqi military positions in northern Iraq, as well.

On the ground, U.S.-led forces engaged Republican Guard troops near the town of Hindiyah, about 80 kilometers south of Baghdad. The fighting at Hindiyah is near a bridge that U.S. forces plan to use to cross the Euphrates River as they press toward the capital.

U.S. Army Brigadier General Vincent Brooks briefed reporters on the ground operations at central command headquarters in Qatar.

"Our land component developed the situation on the ground in several areas, seeking out concentrations of terrorist death squads and paramilitaries to further reduce their effect, while also attacking divisions of the Republican Guard," he said.

VOA correspondent Alisha Ryu is with U.S. forces in central Iraq. She describes these latest ground operations as "probing attacks" by U.S. troops, designed to determine the strength of Republican Guard units blocking the route to Baghdad.

"They have been hitting them with air strikes with both warplanes and deep attack helicopters," she said. "This has been ongoing. I think they [Americans] want to see what it is that they [Republican Guard units] are actually capable of doing in terms of fighting power. As soon as they establish that, the push will be on for Baghdad."

Defense department officials in Washington say the coalition bombing of Republican Guard units is having an impact.

"We are seeing significant degradation of those [Republican Guard] forces," said U.S. Army Major General Stanley McCrystal. "I won't put an exact number on it, but I will say [it] is a very significant weakening of the forces."

In southern Iraq, U.S. troops reported killing about 100 paramilitary fighters in and around Najaf and Samawah.

U.S. General Vincent Brooks says Iraqi civilians are helping coalition forces identify paramilitary leaders in several urban areas.

"We are very selective about where we go and, frankly, the Iraqi people are telling us exactly where to go," he said. "When we go to do something against a Baath headquarters, for example, it is based on intelligence or other information that has been provided that can be turned into action."

Iraqi government officials continue to maintain a defiant posture toward the coalition advance. At a news conference in Baghdad, Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri said coalition forces face defeat by a unified Iraq.

"The leader, the leadership, the government and the people, they are unified, they are unified in this country," he said. "A unified entity, fighting entity against their colonial war against our country."

On the humanitarian front, officials with the United Nations World Food Program say they hope to return to Iraq sometime in April to revive relief operations.

Some humanitarian deliveries have resumed in Iraq, but, World Food Program Director James Morris told a London news conference that the fighting will have to subside, before a six-month program to deliver food to 27 million Iraqis can begin.

"I mean, our people are terribly at risk," he said. "And so, my hope is that somehow, this will get resolved sooner rather than later, and we can begin to do our humanitarian work."

Finally, the International Red Cross said Monday that it has begun visiting Iraqi prisoners of war held near the southern town of Umm Qasr. A spokesman said talks were ongoing with the Iraqi government about allowing Red Cross workers to visit coalition prisoners held by Baghdad.