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Bearing down on Baghdad

WASHINGTON - American forces closed in on Baghdad yesterday, hitting elite Iraqi troops outside the capital with helicopter gunships and bombs, while small groups of soldiers loyal to Saddam Hussein's government kept up their deadly assaults on the advancing forces.

Lead elements of the main U.S. ground invasion force assembled within 50 miles of Baghdad. But it was unclear how soon the battle for the capital would begin, particularly if stiff Iraqi resistance behind the front lines or sandstorms continue.

For the second day in a row, U.S. forces attacked from the air the Medina division of Iraq's Republican Guard, which is defending the southern outskirts of Baghdad. Not far away, blowing sand slowed the advance of 20,000 troops of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division near Karbala, a Shiite holy city.

As the troops rested yesterday, a sniper circling the U.S. camp shot and killed a tank soldier from the division's 1st Brigade.

One of the 32 Army Apache helicopters used to attack the Medina division was forced down in a farm field. It wasn't clear whether hostile fire or mechanical trouble was responsible. All of the helicopters used in the battle were hit with small-arms fire. Later in the day, the U.S. military destroyed the helicopter, according to reports.

The two U.S. pilots on the downed craft quickly became the latest American prisoners to be shown on Iraqi television. Their fate, and that of five other Americans captured Sunday, wasn't known.

A British soldier was killed near Basra. Though British losses have been relatively high, 17 dead since the conflict began, Prime Minister Tony Blair met little criticism when he reported to Parliament yesterday.

"These things are never easy," Blair said. "There will be some difficult times ahead, but [the war] is going to plan despite the tragedies."

Blair said that "the vital goal is to reach Baghdad as swiftly as possible, thus bringing the end of the regime closer."

The British leader, America's closest ally in the war, is to meet with President Bush at Camp David this week.

Bush, who will formally submit a $75 billion spending request to Congress today for the initial costs of the war, has kept a relatively low profile since ordering the invasion.

Today, the president plans to visit the Pentagon. He is to meet with officers and military families at Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., tomorrow.

Hussein, in a new appearance on Iraqi television, referred to recent fighting in the port city of Umm Qasr in an apparent effort to refute reports that he has been killed. The Iraqi president, wearing a military uniform, predicted victory in a prolonged battle.

"As time goes by, they will lose more, and they will not be able to escape lightly from their predicament," Hussein said, urging Iraqis to slit the throats of the invaders. "We will make it as painful as we can."

The White House has refused to rule out the possibility that Hussein was killed in the attack that Bush ordered on his Baghdad bunker Wednesday. U.S officials said the speech was prerecorded, as most of Hussein's addresses are, and Bush's press secretary, Ari Fleischer, said there was nothing in it that proved it had been made since the war began.

Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, also rumored by some U.S. government sources to have been killed in last week's bunker bombing, held a news conference in Baghdad. Earlier, the Arab TV station al Jazeera broadcast an interview with the commander of Iraq's 51st Division, who was erroneously reported by U.S. officials to have surrendered last week.

As the war entered its sixth day, U.S. officials said a U.S. jet attacking a bridge in western Iraq had accidentally bombed a bus. Syrian television reported that five Syrians were killed and 10 injured. At the Pentagon, Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal apologized for the incident.

At least 20 Americans are thought to have been killed in combat or in war-related accidents since the war began Wednesday. Seven others are missing and presumed dead.

Sunday has been the bloodiest day of the war, with casualties from two engagements near An Nasiriyah, a crossroads city of several hundred thousand on the Euphrates River.

In one battle there, at least nine Marines were killed when Iraqis approaching with a white flag of surrender opened fire. Much of the fighting in the city was for control of two bridges on the invasion road to Baghdad.

Nearby, five American soldiers in a supply convoy were captured Sunday. Seven others are missing and presumed dead.

Battles also raged in and around several areas on the Persian Gulf coast, including artillery exchanges on the outskirts of Basra, a city of more than 1 million. U.S. and British forces have been wary about entering the city, Iraq's second-largest, for fear of guerrilla attacks.

The delay in efforts to secure the nearby port of Umm Qasr and clearing mines from the harbor are likely to prevent, for at least a few days, the flow of extensive U.S. humanitarian aid to the increasingly desperate population of Basra. Much of the area is without electric power, sanitation or water.

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan said the Red Cross is warning of "a humanitarian disaster" in Basra. He called for "urgent measures" to restore power and water.

In the southern oilfields of Rumaila, not far from the coast, five Iraqis in civilian clothes who appeared to be surrendering fired machine guns at British soldiers. That incident slowed efforts to put out seven fires at oil wells in the area.

At Central Command headquarter in Qatar and in Washington, U.S. military officials played down the significance of these recent setbacks, which shook American optimism and financial markets.

The Dow Jones industrial average, which soared last week on expectations of a short, successful war, suffered its worst drop in nearly six months after a weekend in which American forces suffered their heaviest casualties so far.

Military leaders denied that stiff resistance from Iraqi fighters, particularly in areas of southern Iraq nominally under U.S. control, had surprised battlefield planners or slowed the progress of the invasion.

"If you step back and look at the bigger picture ... it's going superbly," said McChrystal, vice director for operations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"Most people think extraordinary progress has been made. Some say historic progress has been made," said Victoria Clarke, assistant defense secretary for public affairs.

Unit commanders have told journalists traveling with U.S. forces that they have been disappointed by the often hostile reaction from ordinary Iraqis as towns along the invasion route have fallen. The jubilation that many Americans had expected has yet to materialize, for the most part, from a civilian population that appears wary of the invaders and desperate for food and other basic needs.

Officials offered a new explanation for the failure of more Iraqi soldiers to surrender during the first days of the conflict. McChrystal said during a Pentagon briefing that some of the 3,000 Iraqi soldiers taken prisoner have told interrogators that intimidation by Saddam Fedayeen paramilitary forces loyal to Hussein is preventing more regular troops from surrendering. He said the regulars are being warned they'll be shot in the back if they give up.

In western Iraq, U.S. and allied forces continued their efforts to prevent the launching of Scud missiles at Israel. Officials said they had not found any signs of Scuds, which they suspect that Hussein has hidden and still might use.

There has been no sign of any chemical or biological weapons, despite an aggressive search by U.S. forces.

Gen. Tommy R. Franks, commander of the U.S.-led forces in the gulf, said during a briefing in Qatar that "several handfuls of bits of information" about such weapons had been received from Iraqi prisoners over the past few days. He said it was too early to expect to find caches of chemical or biological weapons.

Franks said that as U.S. forces tighten the noose around Hussein's forces, the possibility of a chemical or biological attack on U.S. soldiers could increase.

"There is a school of thought that says as the compression comes tighter and tighter and tighter, the pressure will be greater and greater to use those weapons," he said. "We don't know whether the regime will use these weapons."

Franks said the U.S. invasion had made "rapid and in some cases dramatic progress," and that resistance from regular and irregular forces in southern Iraq was not a surprise. He said his war plan is flexible enough to cope with those threats.

U.S. missiles and bombers continued to attack targets throughout the country, including Baghdad and key areas in northern Iraq, where the ground war is expected to start soon. A Republican Guard barracks was bombed near the Kurdish-controlled town of Chamchamal, near the Kirkuk oilfields.

In neighboring Turkey, an urgent meeting between U.S. and Turkish officials failed to reach agreement on the movement of Turkish troops into northern Iraq.

U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is trying to prevent Turkish intervention in Iraq that could force U.S. troops to intervene between Turkish and Kurdish fighters.

Germany, Belgium and the European Union also warned Turkey against intervening, saying that could force NATO to review its efforts to defend Turkey and could hurt that country's attempts to join the EU.

Turkey, which fears that the overthrow of Hussein's government could lead to the establishment of a Kurdish state, refused to allow 62,000 U.S. troops to cross its territory into northern Iraq. U.S. forces are joining with Kurdish fighters to take on Iraqi units in the north.

Richard Boucher, the State Department spokesman, said the United States believes "strongly the current circumstances do not warrant any intervention by Turkish forces, and we expect all parties involved to be responsive to our concerns."

Wire services contributed to this article.

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