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Explosions Rock Central Baghdad after First Large-Scale Coalition Incursion into the City - 2003-04-06

More explosions and gunfire were heard in Baghdad late Saturday, several hours after a U.S. armored column made a brief foray into the center of the Iraqi capital. As coalition forces close in on Baghdad, thousands of refugees are leaving the city.

A column of about 30 tanks and armored vehicles swept into central Baghdad from the south early Saturday. The fighting was intense, and some reports from reporters traveling with coalition forces say hundreds of Iraqis were killed in the incursion.

"And they say that, within minutes, the troops came under intense fire," said VOA correspondent Alisha Ryu, who is with U.S. troops on the southwestern edge of Baghdad. "And the soldiers in the unit say dozens of armed Iraqis believed to be Special Republican Guards were shooting at them from rooftops of buildings with rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft weapons. Now, down on the ground, they often found members of the Fedayeen paramilitary militia."

U.S. military officials say the quick incursion was not designed to seize control of territory inside the city, but rather to send a message to the Iraqi leadership and people.

U.S. Major General Victor Renuart speaking to reporters at coalition headquarters in Qatar, said, "It was, I think, a clear statement of the ability of the coalition forces to move into Baghdad at times and places of their choosing and establish their presence, really, wherever they need to in the city."

More coalition troops are moving on Baghdad from the southeast. VOA TV's Deborah Block is traveling with a U.S. Marine artillery unit. She says there has been sporadic resistance.

"There are Iraqi snipers along the highway at my location. In fact, I can see one Iraqi sniper who was killed by the Marines in a building on an outside stairway, just across the highway," she said.

Even as thousands more coalition troops reach the outskirts of Baghdad, thousands of Iraqi civilians are fleeing the capital in anticipation of street-to-street fighting.

Coalition warplanes are now flying over Baghdad round the clock, providing close air support for advancing ground units, and targeting the remnants of the once-vaunted Iraqi Republican Guards.

U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General T. Michael Moseley, the commander of the coalition's air war, provided a telephone briefing for reporters at the Pentagon from his headquarters in Saudi Arabia.

"I will tell you up front that our sensors show that the preponderance of the Republican Guard divisions that are outside Baghdad are now dead," he said. "We have laid on these people. I found it interesting when folks say we are softening them up. We are not softening them up, we are killing them."

In Washington, President Bush, in his weekly radio address, left little doubt that the U.S.-led coalition is now prepared to finish the job of removing Saddam Hussein from power.

"The people of Iraq have my pledge: Our fighting forces will press on until their oppressors are gone, and their whole country is free," he said.

Despite Saturday's foray into downtown Baghdad and the capture of the city's international airport by coalition forces, Iraqi government officials insist they are fighting back with success.

"We are surrounding them and pounding them heavily by artillery and missile strikes," said Iraq's information minister, Mohammed al-Sahaf.

Also Saturday, Iraqi state television broadcast more pictures of Saddam Hussein and his two sons. But there was no way to know when or where the video was shot.

Finally, the U.S. Central Command says coalition aircraft struck the home of Ali Hassan al-Majeed. He is the Iraqi general also known as "Chemical Ali", who ordered the use of poison gas against Iraqi Kurds in 1988. U.S. military officials did not provide an assessment of the attack, which took place near Basra.