/ 10 April 2003

Battle at mosque in hunt for Saddam

One US marine was today reportedly killed during a heavy gun battle around a Baghdad mosque that the soldiers suspect may be providing sanctuary for Saddam Hussein.

US warplanes also bombed targets along the west bank of the Tigris river this morning, providing further evidence that media reports of the collapse of resistance in Baghdad were premature.

The fierce firefight happened at about 6.30am BST (9.30am Iraqi time), as US marines attempted to search the mosque on the Tigris river in north-west Baghdad. They came under heavy fire from what appeared to be a unit of Republican Guards, who put up a staunch defence of the building, situated near one of Saddam Hussein’s presidential palaces.

The BBC’s David Willis, who was at the scene, said: ”Having secured the area around the presidential palace, the order came through to search a mosque where it’s thought Saddam Hussein may be hiding.

”Again, fierce fighting accompanied the marines’ arrival. Thick black smoke now hangs over the Tigris.”

The marines were now searching the mosque, said Willis, but one marine was killed by shrapnel during the battle.

There were reports that more than a dozen marines were injured in the encounter, but there was no official confirmation of casualties by the military.

A US military source told Reuters that there had been fighting for some hours around a mosque in the Aadhamiya district of Baghdad.

Today’s air raids on the west bank of the Tigris were targeting non-Iraqi Arab fighters who appeared to be in control of several districts, said a Reuters correspondent in Baghdad.

The witness, Khaled Yacoub Oweis, saw several explosions as US planes swooped over the Mansour district in west Baghdad. He added that Arab fighters were in control of streets in Mansour and other districts in the west of the city. They were controlling checkpoints and US troops were nowhere to be seen, he said.

Street fight with Saddam loyalists

Earlier today, US troops clashed with Saddam loyalists in a north-eastern district of Baghdad, firing on them with heavy artillery, mortars and machineguns.

As coalition aircraft provided cover for the night raids, soldiers reported seeing Iraqi anti-aircraft fire arching up in the direction of the planes. It was not immediately clear how much resistance the US troops had met on the ground during their raid, but as dawn broke over the Iraqi capital, their artillery had fallen quiet and only the occasional rattle of machineguns could be heard.

According to military sources, the night raids were aimed at securing an area around Saddam City, home to about two-million impoverished Shia Muslims, and were the marines’ final objective on the eastern flank of the city centre.

Today’s clashes came just hours after TV pictures of marines and Iraqis toppling a huge statue of Saddam Hussein in central Baghdad were beamed around the world, in scenes widely viewed by the west as evidence of the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

However, marines in the area of the Martyrs’ Monument, a split dome commemorating Iraq’s war with Iran in the 1980s, were patrolling the streets this morning with no signs of resistance.

A US military representative at Baghdad’s international airport reported ”small pockets of resistance” in the area, but no overnight casualties.

US-UK forces focus on Saddam’s hometown

US and British warplanes have bombed Iraqi forces in the northern city of Tikrit while special forces and Kurdish fighters seized a small town about 25 kilometres north of Mosul, the US military said today.

US central command in Qatar said the Kurdish forces had captured more than 200 Iraqis and special forces had attacked Iraqi positions about 30 kilometres south of the northern city of Irbil, destroying tanks, cargo trucks and enemy forces.

Special operations forces were ”softening the battlefield” before any US ground troops move into Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, US officials said.

”This battle definitely isn’t over,” said Captain Frank Thorp at US central command. ”We know there are very strong possibilities of tougher fights to follow.”

Lieutenant Mark Kitchens added that coalition forces were ”actively engaging” Iraqi forces in Tikrit — believed to be a combination of the Republican Guard, Ba’ath party members, paramilitary fighters and regular army units.

Mosul mountain gain

US special operations troops and Kurdish fighters yesterday took control of a mountain range about 16 kilometres north-east of Mosul that included an Iraqi radar and communications centre on the 1066 metre summit.

Coalition aircraft struck the peak — where Iraqi operations directed air defence systems – to clear the way for Kurdish ground forces.

Iraqi forces put up little resistance, suggesting ”the demoralising situation of the Iraqi army,” said Hoshyar Zebari, a leading member of the Kurdistan Democratic party, one of the two main Kurdish factions.

”From our perspective, it was the most important gain and development so far,” he said. ”This shows the crumbling of the northern front.”

Kurdish forces were also within sight of Kirkuk, the centre of Iraq’s second largest oil region. Ares Abdullah, the commander of frontline Kurdish forces near Kirkuk, said there were no immediate plans to move into Kirkuk.

Tens of thousands of Kurds were today celebrating the apparent demise of President Saddam’s regime in Baghdad. In the Kurdish administrative capital of Irbil, people burned newspaper photos of Saddam while children danced and cheered in the streets. Drivers blared their horns amid stalled traffic packed with Kurds waving streamers and the yellow starburst flag of their western-protected enclave. – Guardian Unlimited Â