Army forces battled Republican Guard units at Hindiyah on Monday in street fighting scarcely 50 miles from Baghdad, part of stepped-up air and ground strikes in advance of a drive on the capital. A Pentagon official said 8,000 precision-guided bombs have been dropped on Iraq.
American troops encountered rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire in the dawn raid at Hindiyah, fighting elite Republican Guard units believed repositioned to try to defend the town south of Baghdad, Saddam Hussein's seat of power.
"There are maneuvers going to try to destroy those divisions that stand in our way" of the capital, Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said at the Pentagon.
Heavy bombing was reported during the day, from areas near the northern oil fields to downtown Baghdad to Republican Guard defensive positions south of the city. Bombing south of the capital, probably against Republican Guard positions, resumed at daylight today.
'The mud of defeat'
On the 13th day of Operation Iraqi Freedom, British officials claimed that 8,000 Iraqis have been taken prisoner so far, but Saddam's foreign minister said it was the invading forces who face the choice between death or surrender. "Every day that passes the United States and Britain are sinking deeper in the mud of defeat," said Naji Sabri.
Sabri struck his defiant pose at a news conference at the Iraqi Ministry building -- bombed for the second time in two days.
For his part, President Bush warned that Saddam "may try to bring terror to our shores." The United States is acting to prevent such threats, he said as he issued his latest forecast of victory. "Day by day we are moving closer to Baghdad. Day by day we are moving closer to victory," Bush said during a trip to Philadelphia.
Some defecting Iraqis described harrowing conditions, and not only from American air bombardments.
One, who agreed to talk on condition his name not be used, said agents of the ruling Baath party attempted to shoot deserters. "But we decided it was either die from an American bomb or be killed by our own people," he said in the Kurdish town of Kalak in northern Iraq.
The official casualty count for Americans stood at 44 dead, seven captured and 16 missing. The British death toll rose to 26 with the death of a soldier Monday in southern Iraq.
Iraqi officials have given no estimate of military casualties but have said at least 425 civilians have been killed and thousands wounded.
American and British warplanes continued to bomb at will. Speaking at the Pentagon, McChrystal said American and British warplanes have dropped more than 8,000 precision-guided munitions since the war began -- including roughly 3,000 in the last few days.
Another 700 Tomahawk land attack missiles have been fired at Iraqi targets, he said. In all, the attacks have caused "a very significant weakening of the forces" arrayed to protect Baghdad, he said.
There were more attacks during the day, including communication and command centers in Baghdad. The U.S. Central Command, which is overseeing the war, said the attack marked the first time that long-range B-1, B-2 and B-52 aircraft had carried out simultaneous raids on the same location.
Much of the day's fighting occurred south of Baghdad, where American forces are gathering strength for the push toward the capital.
U.S. troops staged a raid as the sun rose on Hindiyah, a city of 80,000. Iraqis used small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades to try to prevent a column of tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles from taking control of a bridge over the Euphrates.
"This must have been important to him to send down a Republican Guard brigade," said Col. David Perkins, whose troops were facing Iraqis wearing the distinctive patches of Saddam's elite units.
Inside the city, U.S. soldiers found a small cache of weapons. But the haul was bigger at the local Baath Party headquarters.
There, the Americans found tons of ammunition and hundreds of weapons, including several boxes of American grenades marked "Property of the Ministry of Defence of Jordan."
Maps inside the building showed Iraqi military positions and the expected route of the U.S. attack.
The 1st and 2nd brigades of the 101st Airborne Division battled to isolate Najaf, a Shiite holy city. Iraqi forces attacked with mortar and small arms fire, and Maj. Carl Purvis, an Army spokesman, said the Army forces were prepared for house-to-house combat.
"They are trained and poised to do that if necessary," he said.
In the northern part of the country, aircraft hit Iraqi positions near the town of Kalak, aiding Kurdish fighters in their effort to force Iraqis from their positions. Hoishiar Zebari of the Kurdistan Democratic Party said several thousand more U.S. soldiers were expected in the area soon, to help create a new, northern front in the battle against Saddam.
About 1,000 airborne troops parachuted in last week, and Zebari said limited ground operations were under way. "These are behind enemy lines and many, many operations are very sensitive," he said.