BAGHDAD (Reuters)–US forces closed a vice on Baghdad on Tuesday–advancing street by street and blitzing targets in the heart of the capital–after trying to kill Saddam Hussein and his sons with four huge bombs.
Consolidating the US stranglehold on the city of five million people–Marines captured the Rashid airbase in the southeast–five km (three miles) from the center.
The US military said it did not know if the air raid on Monday evening had killed the Iraqi president–but said his grasp on the country of 26 million was fast disintegrating.
"We’re not sure exactly who’s in charge at this particular point in time,” US Brigadier General Vincent Brooks declared.
Aircraft–tanks and artillery pounded the nerve center of Saddam’s administration in a thundering raid in central Baghdad that began at dawn–meeting only scattered Iraqi return fire.
"It’s raining bombs,” said Reuters correspondent Samia Nakhoul. "They’re targeting the same area over and over. The place is shaking and there’s smoke rising,” she said from the Palestine Hotel where most foreign media are based.
Later a US tank fired into the hotel–killing Reuters cameraman Taras Protsyuk and Jose Couso–cameraman for Spain’s Tele 5 television. Nakhoul and two other Reuters journalists were wounded. A US general said the tank had fired a single round to silence small arms and grenade fire from the hotel. Journalists said they had heard no such firing in the vicinity of the hotel.
Al-Jazeera reporter-producer Tarek Ayoub–a Jordanian–was killed during a US air raid–the Arab satellite television said. Another crew member–Zohair al-Iraqi–was hurt when Jazeera’s office near the Information Ministry was hit.
The US military said it was expanding its presence in Baghdad and had met no organized resistance.
Reuters correspondent Sean Maguire said US Marines moved street by street through east Baghdad–meeting small arms fire from Iraqi irregulars but a welcome from some residents. "Thank you–Mr. Bush,” cried one lady dressed in black.
"A vice is closing in on this regime–and as the vice closes their time is running out,” said US Lieutenant Mark Kitchens.
Brooks said US forces thrust into Baghdad from the north and south in what appeared to be the final battle for Saddam’s capital.
US special forces in the north of Iraq were preventing Iraqi troops moving south towards Tikrit–Saddam’s birthplace or Baghdad–Brooks said at Central Command in Qatar.
Two Abrams tanks rolled onto the capital’s Jumhuriya bridge over the Tigris river in a show of muscle to cow forces still loyal to Saddam.
But Iraq’s ever-defiant information minister said Iraqi forces would "tackle and destroy” the invaders.
"They are going to surrender or be burned in their tanks,” Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf told reporters at the Palestine Hotel.
Major Mike Birmingham of the US Third Infantry Division said the intense fighting in downtown Baghdad had calmed somewhat in the afternoon.
He told Reuters correspondent Luke Baker that US troops had been battling 200 to 300 Iraqi militiamen and elite Special Republican Guards–some on foot–some in 40 to 50 trucks.
"The trucks have been destroyed and most of the people as well,” Birmingham said. Ambulances raced through the streets–ferrying casualties to already overwhelmed hospitals.
As the 20-day-old war to topple Saddam neared its climax–US President George W. Bush met his British ally–Prime Minister Tony Blair–to discuss the future of Iraq.
"We will move as quickly as possible to place governmental responsibilities under the control of an interim authority composed of Iraqis from both inside and outside the country,” Bush said after the summit in Northern Ireland.
"The interim authority will serve until a permanent government can be chosen by the Iraqi people.”
Blair said Bush had agreed there would be a "vital role” for the United Nations in Iraqi reconstruction. Bush and Blair hope their vision for after the war will appease widespread international suspicion of US motives in Iraq.
In Moscow–the Kremlin announced that UN Secretary General Kofi Annan would meet Russian President Vladimir Putin–French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder – key opponents of the war–in St. Petersburg at the weekend.
Smoke and flames poured from government ministries and official buildings pounded by US planes–tanks and artillery.
An Iraqi missile shot down an A-10 Warthog ground attack plane in action near Baghdad international airport–which is held by the Americans–Brooks said. The pilot was rescued.
Iraqi state television went off the air. It did not broadcast its regular news bulletin–showing only old footage of Saddam. Baghdad radio also went silent for a while.
The US military indicated that it had targeted the transmitters. "Clearly we would like to destroy Saddam’s capability to disseminate lies,” said Birmingham.
NO WORD ON SADDAM
There was no word on the fate of Saddam after Monday’s airstrike on a residential area of western Baghdad.
"We believe the attack was effective in causing destruction of the facility,” Brooks said. "As to who was inside and what their conditions are–it will take time to determine.”
Witnesses said two houses were flattened and four buildings badly damaged by 2,000-pound (900-kg) bombs in the raid on the Mansur district. Nine Iraqis were killed and four wounded.
A spokesman in Kuwait said a US-led civil administration would start work in Iraq on Tuesday when a team of about 20 officials deploys in the southern port of Umm Qasr.
The mission of the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) is to provide humanitarian assistance–work on reconstructing Iraq and pave the way for the creation of an interim Iraqi government.
ORHA is headed by retired General Jay Garner–who will report to US war commander General Tommy Fran’s.
A British military spokesman’said a tribal leader would help form a new leadership in Iraq’s southern province after British forces seized Basra–Iraq’s second city–on Monday. Residents demanded the British stamp out rampant looting.
In the north–US planes pounded Iraqi positions in and around the oil hub of Kirkuk overnight in one of the heaviest attacks yet in the area–a Kurdish commander said.
On world markets–investors began looking past the Iraq war to worries about the US economy–depressing stocks and keeping many markets ticking over. Oil prices vacillated–gold prices were up and the dollar traded slightly higher. Bonds were flat.