Iraq shoots down Apache helicopter, shows captured pilots
Allies press ahead despite resistance
* Blair says forces just 90-km from Baghdad
* 62 Iraqi civilians, 6 Baath party leaders killed
* Bombing of Baghdad, Mosul, Kirkuk continues
NASSIRIYA: US and British forces were making “rapid” progress towards Baghdad, the US claimed on Monday, despite the allies being bogged down in fierce battles for the strategic southern Iraqi cities of Nassiriya and Basra.
On the fifth day of war, the setbacks for the coalition included a climbing body count, tough resistance from Iraqis loyal to Saddam Hussein, and the downing of at least one US Apache helicopter.
But with allied forces pushing forward in a multi-pronged strategy that involved leapfrogging many points of opposition, there was some progress on other fronts. General Tommy Franks said “progress toward our objectives has been rapid and in some cases dramatic”.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair had earlier said advance units were just 90 km south of Baghdad and predicted that a critical battle was fast approaching.
The US Army’s Third Infantry Division was camped about 160 km south of Baghdad near Najaf, with US Marines to the east and the 101st Airborne Division moving up from the southwest. A US soldier was shot dead near Najaf, and comrades chasing after his assailant killed two Iraqis and captured several others, US officers said. Gen Franks said 3,000 Iraqi POWs had been taken since the war started.
Meanwhile, Iraqi television showed pictures of the downed Apache helicopter and two men it said were its pilots. Baghdad claimed it had downed another Apache. British officials also said two of their soldiers were missing.
At Nassiriya, some 4,000-5,000 allied forces launched what they vowed would be an all-out blitz to clear the way to Baghdad. A medical corps man said the overnight toll on allied forces fighting in for the town was heavy. “They are taking a lot more casualties than they are telling the press,” he said. Iraqi television said six members of the ruling Baath party died in fighting in Nassiriya.
In Iraq’s southeast, US and British forces continued to have trouble overcoming Iraqi resistance in Umm Qasr. CNN reported that the headquarters of the Republican Guard in Umm Qasr had been captured, but Iraqi deputy prime minister Tareq Aziz said the elite force had not fought in the port city.
British forces assaulting Basra were forced to withdraw to regroup after coming under attack by mortars and guerrillas.
Howling sandstorms that slowed the US 101st Airborne Division promised to worsen on Tuesday and would only taper off sometime Thursday, according to US Army meteorologists.
Meanwhile, Baghdad and Mosul continued to be bombed, and the US-led forces staged their first air strike on Iraqi frontlines between the Kurdish-held northern town of Chamchamal and the key oil capital of Kirkuk, an AFP correspondent reported.
The Iraqi information ministry said US-led forces had killed 62 people in the last 24 hours, including 30 in Babel and 14 in Basra. More than 400 had been wounded, nearly half of them in Baghdad.
Iraq launched three missiles into Kuwait, two of which were destroyed by a US Patriot battery and one left to land in a northern desert area. —AFP/Reuters