Baghdad digs in - literally - for battle

For Americans following the inexorable allied march northward, this has become the "Are we there yet?" war. Iraqis waking to the distant thunder of bombing strikes and the gritty yellow pall of roiling sandstorms have a different refrain: "Are they here yet?"

The two questions point to a common perception that the battle for Baghdad has begun.

Some Iraqis may fear "barbarians at the gate." Some Americans and Britons may imagine advancing forces as Luke Skywalker destroying the heart of the Babylonian Death Star. But both groups recognize the strategic and symbolic importance of Iraq's capital city.

Residents of Baghdad awoke to stormy conditions and smoke from fuel fires meant to hide targets. Streets were mostly empty as the entire city appeared to hunker down for the coming battle.

Baghdad is literally digging in for intense combat.

The city's people are expanding defensive trenches around the city, including in the courtyard of the Iraq museum, home to priceless antiquities, some dating to 7,000 B.C. And residents reported seeing members of Saddam Hussein's intelligence agencies posted on the streets.

From Basra to Baghdad, allied forces are advancing toward the heart of Saddam Hussein's strength. The leading edge of a 200-mile convoy marching north to the Iraqi capital has reached the city's outer rings of defense.

To put the progress in perspective: In six days, thousands of vehicles have raced through sniper fire, tricky river crossings, and intense spring sandstorms to cover a distance equivalent to driving from Santa Barbara to San Francisco. The 3rd Infantry Division's sweep through southern Iraq has killed about 500 Iraqi fighters, according to reports reaching ground forces command.

"So far, over the five days, the progress on the way to Baghdad has been exactly what we planned," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said. "Nobody, least of all the forces loyal to Saddam, should be in any doubt that the resistance will be broken down and that the goals of the coalition forces will be met," he added.

Heavy airstrikes against Republican Guard units around Baghdad are preparing for what US officials say will be a crucial battle with Hussein's feared Medina Division of the Guard. Coalition forces Monday sent in more than 1,500 fighter jets and helicopter gunships to break down the Guard defense of Baghdad.

US Apache attack helicopters reportedly took significant anti-aircraft and ground fire during their initial raids on the Medina Division. Though they were able to destroy about 10 Iraqi tanks, hits to more than 30 helicopters forced a retreat.

To the south, Marines stalled at Nasiriyah over a struggle for two bridges crossed the waterways and dashed on to join the assault on Baghdad.

Aid agencies fearing the prospect of a long and bloody war continued to warn Monday of a looming humanitarian crisis. Basra, Iraq's second-largest city and site of intense fighting, was on the verge of chaos after water supplies were partially cut.

But successful efforts by British forces to secure Iraq's main port city of Umm Qasar Tuesday could mean that major aid shipments could arrive within two days.

To facilitate aid for Iraqi citizens, British officials changed their assessment of Basra to a "legitimate military target," a move that allows allied forces to aggressively target Iraqi military forces there. Officials had previously expressed reluctance to do battle within the city.

In other developments, stray US cruise missiles killed five people and injured 10 others on a passenger bus in Syria just a day after two others slammed harmlessly into Turkish territory.

President Bush, meanwhile delivered the first estimate of the war's cost Monday: $75 billion over six months. The figure includes nearly $63 billion for prosecution of the war, based on a Pentagon estimate that fighting will last about 30 days.

Material from wire service reports was used in this story.

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