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Iraq War News Roundup

April 7, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: U.S. soldiers and marines pushed into Baghdad from two sides today, fighting their way through Iraqi defenses. And there were new developments in the hunt for chemical weapons. Kwame Holman has our war news roundup.

KWAME HOLMAN: American tanks entered Baghdad for the third straight day, but this time they kept going, all the way into the heart of the city. And instead of pulling back again, they took up defensive positions, and held the ground they had taken. U.S. troops seized a key symbol of Saddam Hussein’s regime today, one of his presidential palaces. Members of the third infantry division searched room to room. Among their finds: Gold bathroom fixtures and a huge mural of Saddam. Today’s foray began with more than 100 armored vehicles storming into the capital this morning. Overhead were A-10 Warthogs and other air support. There were some fierce battles, including one along the Tigris River. Iraqi fighters ran along the river bank as they fled the U.S. advance on the presidential palace. Marines approaching the city from the east also encountered resistance. At least four Americans died when an artillery shell hit their armored personnel carrier. U.S. officials, however, have not discounted friendly fire as the cause. Elsewhere in Baghdad, troops took control of the parade grounds where the regime has held many lavish events. Despite today’s successes, U.S. officials at central command remained circumspect.

BRIGADIER GEN. VINCENT BROOKS: Even though the coalition has disrupted much of the regime’s ability to wage war and its command and control systems, the regime retains some capability. The term I used a few days ago was “cautious optimism,” and so, while that increases the optimism and reinforces the reality of our ability to conduct operations even into the heart of the regime, where the regime does not have control, it also reminds us that there’s still a great deal of hazard out there.

KWAME HOLMAN: Also in Baghdad, Iraqi police and some civilians came into the streets and waved guns and chanted pro-Saddam slogans. Another video of Saddam Hussein with his military leaders was shown on Iraqi television. As with past appearances, it wasn’t clear when the pictures were taken. And at a press conference in Baghdad, Iraq’s information minister again said his government still was in charge.

MOHAMMED SAEED AL SAHHAF: They push few of their tanks with their soldiers, we besieged them and we killed most of them, and I think we will finish them soon. My feelings, as usual, we will destroy them all, those invaders, their tombs will be here in Iraq.

KWAME HOLMAN: They are so overwhelmed they can’t keep track of how many war related patients have been admitted. Iraqi officials took journalists on a tour of one Baghdad hospital. A hospital official said medical centers faced shortages of drugs, water, and electricity. Outside the city, U.S. forces manned checkpoints on all major roads, and solidified their hold on the international airport. That’s where New York Times reporter Steven Lee Myers is with the army’s third infantry division.

STEVEN MYERS: The first brigade which occupied the area around the airport, there are essentially two palaces between the airport and the city itself. Today they went to one of those, the first brigade armored battalion, essentially occupied the presidential compound. They found very little resistance there. They said there was a team of perhaps nine snipers or a sniper teams — killed two of them, captured one, who… had come into the country and brought the palace by the Republican Guards — and essentially the occupation of an empty palace. I sort of followed soldiers around inside because I was quite curious to see their reaction to it. And some of them talk about it in the same way that you might hear President Bush talk about it, that… and on the trappings of his power — and not for the benefit of the Iraqi people. Even as that was happening, a rocket or missile landed in the center of the command center for the second brigade. What this is a mobile command post where many of the staff officers for the brigade essentially oversee the attacks that are underway. The last report I heard that there were at least four dead, two soldiers and two journalists, 15 others were wounded, some of them are apparently fairly seriously wounded, and at least 17 vehicles were destroyed.

KWAME HOLMAN: There were some reports of possible discoveries of weapons of mass destruction. Today, in a warehouse near the Baghdad airport, U.S. forces found about twenty missiles that may have been equipped to carry sarin and mustard gas. At an agricultural facility near Karbala, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, members of the 101st Airborne found drums of chemicals. Initial tests were not conclusive. In that same vicinity, another discovery was made of large containers that appeared to be filled with chemicals. An Iraqi paramilitary training facility was nearby. Some of the drums were marked pesticides. The U.S. troops reported a chemical odor in the air.

CAPT. KEN HUTCHINSON: More than half the guys had thrown up. Some guys were reporting red dots and headaches.

KWAME HOLMAN: Again, it wasn’t clear what substance had been found. At the pentagon this afternoon, Defense Sec. Rumsfeld was asked about the reports.

REPORTER: Quoting a spokesperson for the 101st Airborne Division, they’re saying that the substances found at a training camp in central Iraq between Karbala and Hilla, apparently include nerve agents sarin and tabun, and the blister agent lewisite, and that preliminary tests indicate that they are WMD, but that traces are being sent back to the United States for final testing. Could you give us your comment on that, sir? And might this be the smoking gun that you’ve been looking for?

DONALD RUMSFELD: I haven’t seen the report, but it sounded… you used the word “apparently,” and you used the word “preliminary,” so it sounds like a very responsible report. We don’t do that. We have to recognize that almost all first reports that we get turn out to be wrong. There tend to be changes in them. And as a result, we have to take our time and look at it. We don’t do first reports, and we don’t speculate. And I can tell you it takes days to get samples of things from wherever they are in the battlefield into a first place where they take a look and then to a second place where things get checked. And I think that the prudent thing in a case like this would be to kind of let the thing play itself out and we’ll see what’s… we’ll eventually know.

KWAME HOLMAN: In the north, Kurdish fighters advanced toward the key city of Mosul, taking several towns from Iraqi troops along the way. Al Jazeera Television broadcast pictures of plumes of smoke rising over Mosul today, indicating the city may have planes. Near the town of Halabja on the Iraqi border with Iran, the Kurds searched a base camp that had been used by Ansar al-Islam, a group linked to Osama bin Laden. The camp was destroyed by coalition air strikes last week. U.S. and British military officials said today there are strong indications a notorious Iraqi general was killed in Basra in a weekend air strike. Ali Hassan al-Majid became known as “Chemical Ali” for ordering a gas attack that killed thousands of Kurds in 1988. A body believed to be his was being examined. British troops took control of Basra today, and drew cheers from the residents. We have that story from Bill Neely of Independent Television News.

BILL NEELY: Dawn in Basra today and challenger tanks rumbled through the around it a gates of the presidential palace. The assault on Iraq’s second city is just hours old. The tanks and the marines behind them aren’t stopping. They push forward across the most symbolic ground in southern Iraq. This palace, the seat of Saddam’s power here — power that the marines are smashing away — different building, different way in. The marines were convinced that if Saddam’s men were to make a final stand anywhere on this site, they’d make it here, so orders were hushed.

SOLDIER: Two, straight in first.

BILL NEELY: Just 12 hours earlier, a soldier with another unit in Basra was killed by a booby trapped bomb so, they moved cautiously through a dozen echoing buildings, but they found little inside — ornate bathrooms, but no people, no furniture, nothing for these looters who the marines rounded up. The tanks poured in, but here at the presidential palace not a shot was fired. This afternoon, royal marines stopped these men at a road block and found with them a loaded automatic weapon, knives and military identity cards. This is exactly the kind of thing these marines are worried about, ambushes by soldiers who have simply taken their uniforms off. But there’s been little sign of resistance since the marines entered Saddam’s southern power base on a sultry Sunday evening. Instead, they were mobbed, crowds jumping on the tanks, delirious with joy. On the famous waterfront looters set ships on fire. British troops blocked the roads but couldn’t stop thousands of Iraqis from taking whatever they could — outside, and in. With tanks and guns, the troops restored order. They are now in power, and they’re showing it.

KWAME HOLMAN: The overall U.S. war commander, General Tommy Franks, made his first trip into Iraq today to visit the troops. Central command said he made three stops, including one in the city of Najaf. The official U.S. death toll in the war rose to 89 today. That number may not include some of the latest casualties in Baghdad. Seven Americans still are missing in action, and seven remain prisoners of war. Among British troops, 30 have died. And Iraq has claimed more than 6,000 civilians killed and wounded. The Iraqis still have not released any military casualty figures.

JIM LEHRER: Thanks, Kwame. President Bush and British Prime Minister Blair opened two days of meetings in Belfast, Northern Ireland, today. They were expected to focus on how to rebuild and govern Iraq after the war. The British favor a strong U.N. role in running the country. The U.S. wants the U.N. to deal mostly with humanitarian aid. Secretary of State Powell defended that stance, as he traveled with the president. He said, “The coalition, having taken the political risk and having paid the cost in lives, must have a leading role.” In Oakland, California, today, police fired rubber pellets to disperse hundreds of anti-war protesters. At least six of them and six longshoremen standing nearby were injured. Police said some in the crowd had thrown rocks and bolts. But the demonstrators and the longshoremen complained the police were overly aggressive.