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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Street Fighting on Road to Baghdad

APU.S. Private Nicholas Henderson directing Iraqi men waiting to be searched at a checkpoint in Najaf in central Iraq on Tuesday.
IN SOUTHCENTRAL IRAQ -- U.S. soldiers on the road to Baghdad fought bloody street-to-street battles with Iraqi forces loyal to Saddam Hussein, while tense U.S. troops in southern Iraq shot and killed seven women and children when the driver of a van failed to stop at a checkpoint.

The civilian deaths could damage coalition efforts to win over the Iraqi people and spark more anti-war protests around the world. U.S. Brigadier General Vincent Brooks expressed regret over Monday's incident but said civilian deaths were "unavoidable" in war.

Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, reading a statement he said was from Hussein, called on Tuesday for a jihad, or holy war, against the U.S.-led invasion.

"The aggression that the aggressors are carrying out against the stronghold of faith is an aggression on the religion, the wealth, the honor and the soul and an aggression on the land of Islam," he said on national television.

"Therefore, jihad is a duty in confronting them," he added, saying "those who are martyred will be rewarded in heaven. Seize the opportunity, my brothers."

Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, speaking to reporters in Baghdad, renewed warnings that invading forces would be the targets of suicide bombers, saying more Arab volunteers were arriving in Iraq to carry out such attacks.

"I tell them the number of volunteers in this battle of honor has exceeded 6,000, more than half of them martyrdom-seekers, time bombs. ... You will hear their news in a few days," he said.

U.S.-led forces launched missiles early Tuesday toward Baghdad and the holy Shiite Muslim city of Karbala to the southwest, and circling warplanes bombed targets in the area.

To the southeast, coalition aircraft bombed Iraqi forces around Kut, east of the Tigris River. A U.S. Marine intelligence analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the bombardment was to clear the way for ground forces, which could open the way for an eastern front in the attack on Baghdad.

In the capital Tuesday, buildings shuddered in some of the strongest blasts since the air war began March 20. The night sky glowed orange and smoke billowed from the Old Palace presidential compound. Rumbling explosions could be heard throughout the morning.

U.S. officials said warplanes struck a complex that serves as the office of the Iraqi National Olympic Committee, where Iraqi dissidents say a torture center was run by Hussein's son Odai, head of the Olympic committee.

Iraqi Information Minister al-Sahhaf said a total of 56 people were killed and 268 wounded Monday night and Tuesday morning. Among them were nine children, including an infant, who were killed Tuesday morning in al-Sahhaf's hometown of Hillah, about 80 kilometers south of Baghdad, he said.

Iraqi officials have said at least 480 civilians have been killed, but have given no figure for deaths in the Iraqi military. British officials say 8,000 Iraqis have been taken prisoner so far.

The official casualty count for Americans stands at 46 dead, seven captured and 16 missing. Twenty-six British soldiers have died.

U.S.-led troops have relentlessly targeted Republican Guard positions in and around Baghdad in preparation for the war's likely decisive battle.

Near Diwaniyah, 130 kilometers southeast of Baghdad, Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 4th Regiment cleared out Iraqi mortar nests, snipers and tanks along a line several kilometers wide. Lieutenant Colonel B.P. McCoy said they killed at least 75 Iraqis and took 44 POWs.

Marines described Iraqis fighting with grenade launchers, machine guns and small arms, trying to ambush the attackers in any way they could.

"They were shooting from buildings, from dugout positions, from holes, from everything. They would jump out to shoot. They were behind buses -- you name it, they were there," said Corporal Patrick Irish.

U.S. forces on Monday battled fighters from the Republican Guard in the Euphrates River town of Hindiyah, about 80 kilometers south of Baghdad. Troops searching the local headquarters of Hussein's Baath Party found maps showing Iraqi military positions and the expected route of the U.S. attack.

In Kuwait, the first 5,000 troops of the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division have arrived, and the division's assistant commander, Brigadier General Stephen Speakes, said the unit's 30,000 soldiers could be on the ground in Iraq "in a matter of weeks."

The Texas-based division had been expected to invade Iraq from the north, but Turkey's decision not to allow coalition forces to enter from its territory scotched that plan. Some 30 ships laden with the division's forces and equipment had to make the 10-day trip from the Mediterranean Sea through the Suez Canal to the Gulf.

Monday's fatal shooting happened at a U.S. Army checkpoint near Najaf, about 30 kilometers north of Saturday's suicide attack that killed four U.S. soldiers. Coalition officials said soldiers motioned for an approaching van to stop, but the driver ignored them.

Troops fired warning shots, to no avail, before shooting into the engine, and finally into the passenger compartment, said a statement from U.S. Central Command. The van was carrying 13 women and children, and seven were killed, the statement said.

But The Washington Post, whose reporter is traveling with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, said 15 people were in the vehicle and 10 were killed, including five small children. The newspaper quoted an Army captain as saying the checkpoint crew did not fire the warning shots quickly enough.

Central Command said initial reports indicated the soldiers had acted properly. A spokesman blamed the deaths on the Iraqi regime's practice of using women and children as shields and its guerrilla tactics such as Saturday's taxi suicide bombing.

"So the blood of this incident is on the regime of Saddam Hussein," said Navy Captain Frank Thorp.

Thorp said another Iraqi was killed Tuesday in a similar incident, at a checkpoint near the southcentral town of Shatra.

At the country's largest port, Umm Qasr in southern Iraq, two Iraqi soldiers sent on a suicide bombing mission turned themselves in to British troops "because they didn't want to be suicide bombers anymore," said Colonel Steve Cox, commander of the British marines running the port. He said the pair had no explosives when captured and did not name their target.

Iraq publicly denied a report that Hussein's family had fled the country. A statement on Iraqi television called the report "a rumor circulated by the U.S. Defense Department."

Iraqi television late Monday aired footage of Hussein and his sons Odai and Qusai, but there was no way of determining when the video was shot.

General Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said U.S. intelligence sources have been unable to confirm that Hussein survived the March 19 strike on a bunker where he was believed to be staying but said, "That doesn't mean he's dead."

U.S. President George W. Bush warned Monday that Hussein "may try to bring terror to our shores," while offering assurances that the war remains on track.

In northern Iraq, commanders said forces searching the recently captured compound of Muslim extremist group Ansar al-Islam found documents, computer discs and other material belonging to Arab fighters -- including suspected militants living in the United States.

"We have found several documents and evidence that indicates the presence of chemical or biological weapons," one American soldier said.

The Bush administration has long claimed Ansar is linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network, but there has been no indication it has ties to Hussein's regime.

 European Union officials plan to tell U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell when they meet Thursday that the United Nations must play the central role in rebuilding postwar Iraq.

EU spokeswoman Emma Udwin said Tuesday that senior diplomats from the 15-nation union would stress that it was their "primary concern to have the UN center stage."

"We believe the UN system has a unique capacity and experience in post-conflict states," she said, adding, "The UN should play a central role during and after the crisis."

Powell is scheduled to hold talks Thursday in Brussels with foreign ministers from EU and NATO nations as well as Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.

 The European Union proposed a UN human rights resolution Tuesday urging that coalition and Iraqi forces "abide strictly" by international law in the current war.

The draft resolution, however, puts the burden on Iraq "to respect and ensure the rights of all individuals, irrespective of their origin, ethnicity, gender or religion."

The resolution was introduced in the 53-nation UN Human Rights Commission as the United States assured the body that the outcome of the war would "most certainly" improve the human rights situation in Iraq and "restore to the long-suffering Iraqi people their personal freedoms and dignity."

 U.S. House Republicans on Tuesday proposed giving Bush the entire $74.7 billion he wants to begin paying for the war with Iraq and anti-terrorism costs, but clamping down on the flexibility he sought in deciding how to spend the money.

The Republican-run House Appropriations Committee began debating the measure on Tuesday in hopes of approving the legislation quickly, as Bush has requested.