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U.S. forces march into heart of Baghdad

U.S. Army soldiers searching one of Saddam Hussein's palaces, damaged after a bombing, in Baghdad on Monday. — AP

BAGHDAD April 7. American forces thundered into the heart of Baghdad today, storming a presidential palace and briefly placing tanks outside the Information Ministry, a message to Saddam Hussein's regime that coalition forces could enter the Iraqi capital at will. American tanks also briefly surrounded the Al-Rashid Hotel where Iraqi snipers fired on U.S. soldiers. U.S. tanks returned fire with their main guns and .50 caliber machine guns.

A U.S. commander said resistance coming into the city was heavier than expected as Iraqi troops laid new minefields and set up new firing positions.

A report from Basra, quoting British officials, said Ali Hassan al-Majid, one of the most brutal members of Mr. Hussein's inner circle, was apparently killed by an airstrike on his house. He had been dubbed "Chemical Ali" by opponents for ordering a 1988 poison gas attack that killed thousands of Kurds.

On Monday afternoon, nearly 10 hours after the battle began, the city continued to be rocked by explosions from areas on the west bank of the Tigris, where a fierce battle was thought to be raging.

More than 70 tanks and 60 Bradley fighting vehicles took part in the early morning raid under cover of tank-killing A-10 planes and pilot-less drones.

Two U.S. soldiers and two journalists were killed and 15 people wounded today in an Iraqi attack on a U.S. communications centre on the southern outskirts of Baghdad, military sources said. Two other Marines were killed and two wounded when their armoured troop carrier took a direct hit from an artillery shell at a bridge over a canal on the outskirts of the capital, according to B.P. McCoy of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines. About a half hour later, Marines swarmed into the capital on foot, crossing a bridge spanning a canal at the south edge of the city, meeting little resistance. Also, a group of U.S. armoured personnel carriers was hit by rockets in southern Baghdad, according to field reports. Six American soldiers were reported missing and a large number wounded.

There was no estimate of Iraqi casualties from the raids, but about 100 Iraqis in military uniform were killed in fighting at Baghdad's international airport in a seven-hour battle that ended shortly after midnight. An official at Baghdad's al-Kindi hospital said at least 75 wounded civilians had been brought in since morning, most suffering from gunshot wounds, burns and shrapnel.

U.S. officials have said nearly 3,000 Iraqi fighters may have been killed in that initial incursion.

Tanks with the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division barrelled into the capital on the western side of the Tigris at 6 a.m. Iraqi fighters with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades put up moderate resistance as the tanks approached the city along Highway 8. However, the Iraqi Information Minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, declared, "I assure you Baghdad is safe." "They are beginning to commit suicide at the walls of Baghdad," he said at a hastily called news conference outside the Palestine Hotel, where many foreign journalists are staying. "There is no presence of the American columns in the city of Baghdad, none at all."

By noon, explosions and small-arms and machine gun fire continued from the southern section of the Old Palace compound, 5 km from the New Palace. The intensity suggested a fierce battle between U.S. troops and Iraqi defenders.

Iraq Radio broadcast a religious sermon exhorting Iraqis to fight and denouncing the U.S. and Britain. Iraqi TV broadcast patriotic songs, footage of Iraqis chanting slogans in support of Mr. Hussein and archival material of the Iraqi leader firing a gun and greeting crowds.

U.S. Army columns moved northeast to the newest and main presidential palace on the river, which divides the capital. The palace, close to the Baath Party headquarters, apparently was used mainly a residence rather than for administrative purposes. The party headquarters have been destroyed, although it wasn't clear when the damage was done. Iraqis — some nearly naked — fled along its banks. Some jumped into the water. An ammunition depot across the river was on fire.

Before the Americans seized the complex, Iraqis shot small arms fire at them from a clock tower overlooking the compound. Tanks quickly destroyed it. With Bradleys and tanks taking up fighting positions around the presidential palace, units with the 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry inside the bombed-out palace buildings rifled through documents and looted ashtrays, pillows, gold-painted Arab glassware and other items. Some rooms had spectacular river views. A thick layer of dust covered gilded, imitation French baroque furniture.

The main palace building was flooded in the basement and first floor. The rest of the building appeared to be destroyed, hit by cruise missiles or laser-guided bombs. Palace curtains were strewn over the ground, blown from their windows by the explosions. Most of the compound was severely damaged from prior U.S. raids. — AP, Reuters

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