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Coalition Troops Consolidate Positions Around Baghdad - 2003-04-07

Coalition troops consolidated their position around Baghdad, as U.S. military officers say they may have found drums containing suspicious chemicals. Meanwhile, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are meeting in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to discuss post-war Iraq.

More than 100 U.S. tanks and armored vehicles pushed deep into the center of Baghdad, storming a main presidential palace and other government buildings in a show of force.

U.S. military officers say chemical substances, found at two sites in central Iraq and near the Baghdad airport, will have to be thoroughly tested for evidence of chemical weapons. In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld cautioned that it would take days for reliable test results.

He said coalition forces are moving closer to the goal of removing Iraq's leadership. "Let me assure all Iraqis listening today that life without Saddam Hussein is not a distant dream. Coalition forces will not stop until they have accomplished their mission," he said.

Mr. Rumsfeld also expressed optimism that General Ali Hassan Al Majid, better known as "Chemical Ali," is dead. British forces in the southern Iraqi city of Basra are reported to have found "Chemical Ali's" body following a coalition airstrike on his compound there. The Iraqi general's nickname refers to his suspected responsibility for ordering the use of poison gas against Iraqi Kurds in 1988.

On the ground in Baghdad, VOA correspondent Alisha Ryu was with a U.S. military unit that entered a key presidential palace. She said Iraqi Republic Guard units appeared to have fled.

"We heard artillery fire all day Monday and so we know that there have been some contacts, but there doesn't seem to be that kind of heavy resistance they encountered the first time they went into the city and encountered small arms fire and a lot of these paramilitary guys," she said.

Iraq's information minister denied that U.S. troops are in Baghdad, telling his people that coalition forces have suffered heavy losses. The Red Cross reports that the city's hospitals are overflowing with Iraqi war casualties. U.S. officials say they have taken custody of about seven thousand Iraqi prisoners of war.

Meanwhile, President Bush and British Prime Minister Blair are meeting in Belfast. Top on their agenda is discussion over how to administer Iraq once the fighting is finished.

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan repeated calls that the international body be allowed to play an important role in post-war Iraq. "U.N. involvement does bring legitimacy, which is necessary, necessary for the country [Iraq], for the region and for the people around the world," he said.

Aid officials in Jordan say an expected Iraqi humanitarian crisis has not materialized. Relief organizations now are focusing on providing clean drinking water and sanitation for the Iraqi people.