BAGHDAD (Reuters)–US troops stormed the heart of Baghdad on Monday–seizing two presidential palace compounds but losing at least four dead as Iraqi forces fought back. The US military described the assault by more than 100 tanks and armored vehicles as a show of force–rather than a final attack on the sprawling city of five million–but they remained in the center of the capital after nightfall.
US officers said the assault was intended to prove to President Saddam Hussein that they could strike at will.
Baghdad’s hospitals battled with a constant stream of dead and injured. Doctors said there were so many cases that they were running short of anesthetics and medical equipment.
At the Kadhimiya hospital in the north of Baghdad–doctors told Reuters correspondent Hassan Hafidh they had taken in 18 dead and 142 injured in the last two days–while the toll at Kindi hospital near the center was four dead and 176 injured.
"Surgeons have been working round the clock for the past two days and most are exhausted. Conditions are terrible,” said Roland Huguenin-Benjamin–local spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross.
A US armored column blasted into central Baghdad early on Monday with relative ease–but two Marines were killed and three wounded in a fierce battle for two river bridges in the east.
Marines said their comrades had died in "friendly fire” when an artillery shell fired by their own side fell short.
MARINES CROSS RIVER
The Marines later crossed the Diyala river even though the Iraqis had damaged the bridges to slow them up. Two US soldiers and two journalists were killed and 15 people wounded in an Iraqi attack on a communications center in the southern outskirts of Baghdad–military sources said.
Iraq said the invaders were "committing suicide” at the capital’s gates.
Heavy fighting raged in the afternoon and Iraqi forces poured artillery shells into a presidential complex on the west bank of the Tigris river that US forces had seized.
"The Iraqis are definitely fighting back,” said Reuters correspondent Samia Nakhoul from a central vantage point.
A Reuters photographer said shells–apparently American–were landing in the gardens of the luxury Rashid Hotel and around the Information Ministry.
US Lieutenant Colonel Pete Bayer told Reuters earlier: "We have seized the main presidential palace in downtown Baghdad… There are two palaces down there and we are in both of them.”
Iraqi state-run television showed footage of Saddam–wearing military fatigues–and his son Qusay meeting top aides. It was not clear when the meeting took place.
British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said there were "strong indications” that Ali Hassan al-Majid–or "Chemical Ali,” Saddam’s cousin and military commander in southern Iraq–was dead. Majid earned his nickname for ordering poison gas attacks on Kurds in the late 1980s.
A Reuters reporter in the capital said Iraqi Republican Guards defended key ministries with rocket-propelled grenades.
US military spokesman Captain Frank Thorp said he expected to see continuing fighting with Saddam’s elite troops.
"There’s a lot of tough battles ahead,” Thorp said–adding that US forces had set up checkpoints on all major roads in and out of the capital to stop Iraqi military movemen’s.
US National Public Radio reported American forces near Baghdad had found a cache of around 20 medium-range missiles equipped with potent chemical warheads.
Attributing the report to a top official with the 1st Marine Division–NPR said the BM-21 missiles were equipped with sarin and mustard gas and were "ready to fire.”
The United States and Britain launched a campaign 19 days ago to oust Saddam and rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction–which Iraq consistently denied possessing.
US Central Command headquarters in Qatar had no immediate comment on the NPR report.
In what appeared a separate incident–a US officer said biological and chemical weapons experts had found a possible storage site for such arms south of the central town of Hindiya.
"Our detectors have indicated something,” said Major Ros Coffman–a public affairs officer with the US 3rd Infantry.
"This is an initial report–but it could be a smoking gun,” Coffman told Reuters correspondent Luke Baker. "It is not as if there is a cloud of gas hanging everywhere endangering soldiers lives. We’re talking about a facility.”
In the south–British and US troops walked unopposed almost to the center of Basra–Iraq’s southern city–for the first time–Reuters correspondent Rosalind Russell reported.
Hoon said British forces had moved to the heart of Basra and were there to stay. A British spokesman’said earlier there was still some resistance in the mainly Shi’ite Muslim city.
World financial markets sensed the endgame–sending stock markets and the dollar jumping. The blue-chip Dow Jones industrial average rose over two percent.
Prices of safe-haven bonds tumbled and gold lost $5 an ounce. Oil prices hit a four-month low.
Some military analysts said they believed the fall of Baghdad was imminent–others voiced caution.
"The battle in Baghdad and the hit-and-run strategy we are seeing now does not mean that the Iraqi military has been completely defeated,” Frank Umbach–security and defense analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations–told Reuters.
"I see the fighting going on for a number of weeks.”
Denying what was visible to many Baghdad residents as well as television viewers around the world–Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf said there had been no big US raid.
"Baghdad is safe,” he told reporters at the Palestine hotel as a dense yellow sandstorm swept over the city–mingling with smoke from oil fires lit to obstruct the invaders.
US columns had been "slaughtered,” Sahaf said. "The battle is still going on. Their infidels are committing suicide by the hundreds on the gates of Baghdad…Don’t believe those liars.”
With the war nearing a climax–the issue of how Iraq will be run in a post-Saddam era loomed increasingly large.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair–due to meet President George W. Bush in Northern Ireland later on Monday–was expected to try to persuade his US ally to give the United Nations a bigger role in running Iraq after the war.
Success for Blair could help placate other European leaders who oppose the war. But US officials have ruled out a key political mission for the UN–saying Washington and its allies earned the right to call the shots by giving "life and blood.”
Asked what would constitute victory–Air Marshall Brian Burridge–one of the most senior British commanders in Iraq–said: "Personally I’d like to see (Saddam) standing trial.”