JIM LEHRER: U.S. and British planes swarmed over territory south of Baghdad today. They were setting the stage for a major ground offensive toward the capital. Gwen Ifill has our war news roundup.
GWEN IFILL: Moved north, coalition forces engaged in increasingly sharp fighting across central and southern Iraq. Ahead of them, hundreds of bombs and missiles rained down on elite Iraqi troops, with deadly effect. (Explosions) Today, fresh air strikes pummeled Baghdad's southern and western outskirts, hitting two major Republican Guard units in the area. U.S. Military officials said those elite troops are now at less than half of their original strength. (Explosions) Huge blasts rocked the area overnight. Smoke rose from one of the city's presidential compounds. Another explosion triggered a fire at the Iraqi Olympic Committee headquarters. Saddam's son Uday used the building as a torture chamber. The resulting damage was easy to see. Even so, some residents remained defiant.
AHMED KHALIF ( Translated ): We would defend our homeland until the very last drop of our blood. With the help of God, we will make our land a graveyard for the invaders.
GWEN IFILL: The most intense ground fighting occurred near Diwaniyah, south of Baghdad. A marine spokesman said 90 Iraqi soldiers were killed and 20 were captured. And fighting between U.S. Military units and Iraqi soldiers continued at Hindiyah. The major battle centered around a key bridge over the Euphrates River. U.S. troops also advanced to the nearby town of Hillah, and during fighting with Iraqi forces, captured a general who later provided tactical information.
Iraqi officials escorted camera crews to the town to show them what they said was the aftermath of last night's coalition bombings. Iraq's information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, said nine children, including an infant, were killed in the raid. North of Baghdad, near the Kurdish town of Kifri, massive predawn explosions lit up the sky. The constant, heavy bombing by U.S.-led forces continued into the morning. (Explosions) And several hundred miles north, in the town of Biyare, near the Iranian border, U.S. Special Forces commanders gave details of Saturday's raid on what they said was the compound of Muslim extremist group, Ansar al-Islam.
CHIEF U.S. SPECIAL FORCES COMMANDER: The exploitation of the site is ongoing. We have found various documents and equipment, et cetera, that would indicate the presence of chemical and/or biological weapons. Most of the samples that have been taken have... are being flown back to the states for further study and for testing.
GWEN IFILL: The commanders said they also found computer discs and other material belonging to the fighters, including lists of suspected militants living in the United States. They also confirmed that one of the POW's captured in the raid was a member of al-Qaida who had served in Afghanistan. In southern Iraq, intense fighting continued near Basra, Iraq's second largest city. U.S. officials confirmed that British forces destroyed a number of Iraqi tanks and personnel carriers inside the city, an Iraqi general was also captured. And American navy officials said warplanes from the U.S.S. "Kitty Hawk" dropped bombs on an Iraqi presidential yacht in the port of Basra.
However, outside Basra, tension between Iraqi civilians and British forces seemed to be diminishing. In the cities of Umm Qasr, Zubayr, Rumelia, and Safwan, troops felt secure enough to swap their combat helmets for less protective berets. But farther north, in the town of Shatra, checkpoint operations were not running as smoothly. An unarmed Iraqi driver was killed, according to central command. This comes one day after at least seven Iraqi women and children were killed at a checkpoint near the Muslim holy city of Najaf, in southern Iraq. U.S. Military officials are investigating the circumstances in which troops fired on a van carrying the civilians when the driver refused to stop.
BRIGADIER GEN. VINCENT BROOKS: Our checkpoints have to remain alert and vigilant to any type of threat that would approach that which is being protected and secured. We have not had a change in rules of engagement in recent days. There is increased vigilance because of the tactics we have seen being used on the battlefield by the regime and the death squads that are out there.
GWEN IFILL: Brooks also said he had no information to confirm Iraqi claims that two buses carrying peace activists were attacked by U.S. planes near the Iraqi/Jordanian border. The status of Saddam Hussein remained an open question today. He did not appear in person, but a government minister read a statement on his behalf. It called for the Iraqi people to wage "holy war" against coalition forces. Earlier, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia urged Saddam to step down and save his people. But Iraq's vice president fired back, telling the Saudi minister to "go to hell." The Iraqis claimed today that more than 650 civilians have been killed during the war, and nearly 4,900 have been injured. They did not provide figures on military casualties. On the U.S. side, according to revised figures from the military today, forty-six soldiers have died, at least sixteen are missing, and seven remain prisoners of war. The British have reported 26 of their soldiers killed.