U.S.-led coalition forces continue to target Iraqi positions from the air and on the ground in preparation for an expected push on Baghdad.

Coalition warplanes and missiles again targeted Iraqi government sites in and around Baghdad Monday including presidential palaces and the information ministry.

U.S. and British warplanes also went after Republican Guard positions arrayed around the capital.

On the ground, U.S.-led forces engaged Republican Guard troops near the town of Hindiyah, about 80 kilometers south of Baghdad. The fighting at Hindiyah is near a bridge that U.S. forces plan to use to cross the Euphrates River as they press toward Baghdad.

"Our land component developed the situation on the ground in several areas, seeking out concentrations of terrorist death squads and paramilitaries to further reduce their effect while also attacking divisions of the Republican Guard," said U.S. Army Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, who briefed reporters at central command headquarters in Qatar.

VOA correspondent Alisha Ryu, who is traveling with U.S. forces in central Iraq, described these latest ground operations as "probing attacks" by U.S. troops designed to determine the strength of Republican Guard units blocking the route to Baghdad.

"They have been hitting them with air strikes with both warplanes and deep attack helicopters," she said. "This has been ongoing. I think they [Americans] want to see what it is that they [Republican Guard units] are actually capable of doing in terms of fighting power. As soon as they establish that, the push will be on for Baghdad."

In southern Iraq, U.S. troops reported killing about 100 paramilitary fighters in and around Najaf and Samawah.

U.S. General Vincent Brooks said Iraqi civilians are helping coalition forces identify paramilitary leaders in several urban areas.

"We are very selective about where we go and, frankly, the Iraqi people are telling us exactly where to go," he said. "When we go to do something against a Baath headquarters, for example, it is based on intelligence or other information that has been provided that can be turned into action."

Iraqi government officials continue to maintain a defiant posture toward the coalition advance. At a news conference in Baghdad, Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri said coalition forces face defeat by a unified Iraq. "The leader, the leadership, the government and the people, they are unified, they are unified in this country," he said. "A unified entity, fighting entity against their colonial war against our country."

On the humanitarian front, officials with the United Nations World Food Program say they hope to return to Iraq sometime in April to revive relief operations.

World Food Program Director James Morris told a London news conference that the fighting will have to subside before a six-month program to deliver food to 27 million Iraqis can begin.

"I mean, our people are terribly at risk," he said. "And so my hope is that somehow this will get resolved sooner rather than later and we can begin to do our humanitarian work."

Mr. Morris says the World Food Program faces its biggest challenge ever in feeding civilians once the fighting stops.