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Baghdad pounded

Patrick E. Tyler
The New York Times

KUWAIT CITY – Taking advantage of clear skies, the United States on Thursday unleashed a thunderous bombardment on Baghdad as allied armies strung out over a 350-mile swath of desert fought skirmishes against tenacious Iraqi resistance.

Supply lines stretching back to Kuwait from central Iraqi towns like An Nasiriyah strained to keep the forces watered, fueled and fed. A top army commander, Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, said the removal of Saddam Hussein could take longer than expected and the army had paused to allow quartermasters to push provisions forward and to secure the rear area.

Testifying before Congress in Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said of the eight-day-old war: “We’re still closer to the beginning than we are to the end.”

His statement appeared to reflect several factors: Iraq’s will to fight has proved stronger than foreseen, the 125,000 British and American troops now inside Iraq are stretched and the popular uprising widely expected in the south has not happened.

The bombardment on Baghdad, aimed at government buildings, appeared designed to sap the Iraqi will to fight. But the Iraqi defense minister, Sultan Hashim Ahmed, said Thursday that allied forces would face punishing street fighting in the city that could last months.

Allied forces might encircle Baghdad within five to 10 days, but would eventually have to enter the city, he said.

“God willing, Baghdad will be impregnable. We will fight to the end,” he said.

In the north, the Iraqi army abandoned the town of Chamchamal, close to the border with the northern enclave under Kurdish control. Fighters from the Kurdish minority that predominates in the region, known as Pesh Merga, rushed into the city, bringing their front lines closer to the strategic oil center at Kirkuk, about 150 miles north of Baghdad. It was the first time that the informal border had been breached by the American-backed Kurds.

President George W. Bush on Thursday met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Both deflected questions that allied forces were encountering unanticipated delays and resistance.

“This isn’t a matter of timetable, it’s a matter of victory,” Bush said. “And the Iraqi people have got to know that they will be liberated and Saddam Hussein will be removed, no matter how long it takes.”

On the southern approach to Baghdad, the front-line Iraqi force, known as the Medina division, received reinforcements on Thursday and perhaps chemical weapons, intelligence officers said, to thwart the advance on the Iraqi capital by the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division.

Hundreds of refugees streamed out of the southern city of Basra on Thursday, as British tanks pointed their muzzles down long boulevards into the city where loyalists to Saddam Hussein fired mortar rounds at residents who protested Tuesday.

South of the city, British tank units backed by air support destroyed 14 outdated Iraqi tanks that were part of a large armored column that came out of the city early Thursday and attacked British commando positions on the Faw Peninsula.

Air Marshal Bryan Burridge, commander of British forces in the Persian Gulf, said it appeared that the Iraqi formation fought as if it didn’t “know its business.”

He said most of the soldiers had been pressed into a suicidal attack by hard-line loyalists who are threatening troops and their families with execution to force soldiers into battle. There was no independent means to verify his acount.

Most of the soldiers who died were from the Iraqi 51st Division, reported to have surrendered or fled during the first days of the war. Members of the Division were back on the battlefield under threat, military officials said, to make a last stand or die.

A force of 30 British Challenger tanks and 200 soldiers from the 7th Armored Brigade – the so-called “Desert Rats” division – attacked a Baath Party headquarters in Zubayr outside Basra, where on Tuesday they seized a top party official in a commando raid.

In the northern Kurdish enclave, American 173rd Airborne troops, who made a dramatic entry by parachute Wednesday, secured an airfield at Harir providing the coalition with its first base in the region from which to conduct operations against Iraqi forces on Baghdad’s northern flank.

In An Nasiriyah, about 230 miles south of Baghdad, Marines faced another day of gun battles with irregular forces mounted in armored personnel carriers with rocket launchers and anti-aircraft systems.

The American force holding the strategic crossroads, with its bridges across the Euphrates River, suffered an unspecified number of casualties during a 90-minute battle, said Gen. Vince Brooks of the Central Command.


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