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US Forces Seek to Consolidate Foothold in Baghdad - 2003-04-08

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 and now control two of the three airports in the Baghdad area.

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.

U.S. Brigadier General Vincent Brooks spoke about that with reporters at Central Command headquarters in Qatar.

"But we had an opportunity to attack that particular regime leadership meeting. We believe that the attack was effective in causing destruction of that facility," he said. "As to who was inside and what their conditions are, it will take some time before we can make that full determination."

General Brooks says coalition troops do not control the site of the attack and that it might take some detailed forensic work to determine exactly who died at the site.

A U.S. B-1 bomber dropped four so-called bunker-buster bombs on a building Monday in a residential area of Baghdad, 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. I can not tell you if all 10-fingers are off the throat. But finger by finger, it is coming off," he said. "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 sort of endless diplomatic wrangles over it, let us 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," he said.

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 says 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.

As U.S. troops expand their presence in Baghdad, they are moving swiftly to take control of the many presidential palaces in and around the Iraqi capital.

VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu accompanied U.S. troops on a raid at one of the palaces near Baghdad International Airport.

"With their M-16 rifles at the ready, several dozen U.S. soldiers burst through the front door of the palace and begin conducting a room to room search," she said. "There is no one inside. Aside from a huge, ornate crystal chandelier in the foyer, large pieces of furniture and ubiquitous pictures of Saddam Hussein on the wall, the rooms are empty."

On this particular raid, U.S. troops encountered only light resistance. Two Iraqi snipers were killed near the entrance to the palace. Several other defenders ran away.