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Coalition Troops Capture Key Presidential Palace - 2003-04-07

Coalition troops in Iraq have pushed into the center of Baghdad, capturing a key presidential palace in a daylight raid that came amid reports of fierce firefights in some areas. U.S. President George W. Bush, meanwhile, has arrived in Northern Ireland for talks on Iraq with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

In Baghdad, U.S. troops backed by tanks and armored personnel carriers stormed into the center of the city and seized one of Saddam Hussein's presidential palace compounds on the banks of the Tigris River.

Columns of U.S. armored vehicles streamed into Baghdad, engaging in sporadic clashes with Iraqi forces. American soldiers are reported to have encountered fierce resistance in some areas, and were moving to take control of other key locations in the capital.

VOA's Alisha Ryu, who is with one U.S. unit, said Iraqi Republican Guard units apparently fled one key presidential palace, leaving it mostly undefended.

"The grounds here are abandoned for the most part. Most of the things inside have been cleaned out," she said. "There's only some furniture left, and some dishes and things like that in the kitchen area. But it seems like they were systematically cleaned out and packed away, and no one knows exactly where the contents of the palace have gone. There was certainly no heavy defense guarding this place when we came in, so I think they expected this place to be overrun at some point, and took precautions to get whatever was inside out."

In Qatar, Brigadier General Vincent Brooks described the thrust by U.S. forces into central Baghdad, which followed the capture of the city's airport late last week.

"A second attack into the heart of Baghdad to key regime locations, destroying any defending forces, while protecting the civilian population and the city's infrastructure reinforces the reality that the regime is not in control of all of the major cities," he said.

General Brooks did not comment on an Iraqi missile attack at a command post for the second brigade of the U.S. 3rd Infantry forces south of Baghdad.

"This is the command post that is directing the incursion by the 2nd Brigade into the center of Baghdad," said VOA correspondent Alisha Ryu, who described the attack. "The 2nd Brigade, in fact, about an hour ago, blew up a statue of Saddam Hussein in the center of the city and they were making a security perimeter around the city, when this attack occurred. Obviously, this is very distressing for a lot of the U.S. forces here."

Even as American troops established positions in the capital and live television pictures showed coalition troops in the city, Iraq's information minister held an impromptu news conference to deny that U.S. troops were anywhere in the city. Iraqi television showed what it said were pictures of Saddam Hussein meeting with top aides. Meanwhile, British military forces reported finding a body they believe may be General Ali Hassan Al Majid, the man known as "Chemical Ali," apparently killed in a coalition airstrike. He is believed to be responsible for ordering the use of poison gas against Iraqi Kurds in 1988. A U.S. military spokesman in Qatar said he could not confirm reports of the general's death.

Elsewhere, U.S. military officials are looking into reports of another so-called "friendly fire" incident in northern Iraq where a convoy of Kurdish and U.S. special forces came under attack. Kurdish officials say 18 Kurds died and 45 others were injured.

President Bush holds talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in Northern Ireland today. They will discuss arrangements for a United Nations humanitarian role in Iraq after fighting stops, and longer-term plans for governing the country.

In his briefing for reporters in Qatar, Brigadier General Brooks was asked about reports that the United States has flown in members of the Iraqi opposition National Congress, possibly to form the foundations of an interim authority in the country.

"There should be no surprise that the Iraqi National Congress wants to see a different Iraq than that which existed a few months ago. And that is ongoing," he said. "They are participating, working closely with the coalition. There are some who are willing and ready to fight for the liberation for Iraq."

In Moscow, U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice met senior officials to discuss ways to repair strains in relations caused by Moscow's opposition to the U.S.-led military action in Iraq.

The talks came a day after a convoy transporting Russia's ambassador to Iraq out of Baghdad came under heavy gunfire, with at least four Russian officials wounded. The U.S. Central Command in Qatar says it is still too early to tell whether U.S. forces were involved in the incident, which it said occurred in a contested area.