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US Forces Seek Consolidation of Baghdad Foothold


More fighting is reported in and around downtown Baghdad as U.S. forces seek to consolidate their foothold in the center of the capital.

Meanwhile, U.S. military officials say they do not know if Saddam Hussein was killed in Monday's bombing attack that targeted the Iraqi leadership.

Battles continued to rage in the center of Baghdad as U.S. forces closed in from several directions to consolidate and expand their presence in the Iraqi capital.

U.S. military officials say Marines captured the Rashid military airbase on the southeast side of the capital Tuesday and now control two of the three airports in the Baghdad area.

"Coalition forces now have a substantial presence in and around Baghdad and continue to work to isolate the city," said U.S. Major General Stanley McCrystal. "We are conducting raids from a couple of directions into Baghdad proper and rooting out resistance wherever we find it."

General McCrystal also says coalition aircraft now have air supremacy over all of Iraq.

As to the fate of Saddam Hussein, U.S. military officials say it is too early to know if Monday's airstrike targeting the Iraqi leader and his two sons succeeded.

General McCrystal says it may be some time before U.S. forces can get to the site of the attack and check the damage.

"What we have for battle damage assessment right now is essentially a hole in the ground, a site of destruction where we wanted it to be, where we believed high value targets were. Intelligence led us to believe that," he said. "We do not have hard battle damage assessment on exactly what individual or individuals were on site."

A U.S. B-1 bomber dropped four precision guided bombs on a building in a residential area of Baghdad Monday after U.S. officials were tipped off that Saddam Hussein and his two sons may have been inside.

President Bush says he does not know if Saddam Hussein is dead or alive. But he says he is sure that the Iraqi leader is losing power each day.

"And so the only thing I can tell you is that grip I used to describe that Saddam had around the throats of the Iraqi people are loosening," he said. "I can't tell you if all ten fingers are off the throat. But finger by finger, it is coming off. And the people are beginning to realize that. It is important for the Iraqi people to continue to hear this message: we will not stop until they are free."

Mr. Bush spoke after a meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in Northern Ireland where the two men discussed plans for post-war Iraq.

Both men said the United Nations will play a "vital role" in the reconstruction of Iraq. And Prime Minister Blair appealed to the international community at large to support the effort to create a democratic Iraq.

"Rather than having a sort of endless diplomatic wrangles over it, let's all just agree that the basic things that the Iraqi people want is they want to have a country where they are able to exploit their own wealth for their own prosperity, where they have basic protection of human rights and where they have a government genuinely representative of the full diversity of Iraqi people," Prime Minister Blair said.

Iraqi opposition groups are planning to hold a conference in southern Iraq on Saturday to begin discussing post-war governance of the country. Exiled figures in London say the conference will be held in the southern city of Nasiriya and they expressed the hope that all Iraqi opposition groups will be represented.

Meanwhile, U.S. military strikes killed three journalists and wounded several others. A reporter for the Arab satellite television network al-Jazeera died when his Baghdad office was hit during a bombing raid. And two other journalists were killed and several hurt when a U.S. tank fired on the Palestine Hotel in downtown Baghdad.

U.S. General Vincent Brooks told reporters at Central Command headquarters in Qatar that the tank was responding to sniper fire from the hotel, which is where most foreign journalists are staying in Baghdad. General Brooks says U.S. forces are not targeting journalists and regret the loss of life.