Lead elements of the US advance on Baghdad were reported within 20 miles of the capital as military briefers said one division of Iraq's Revolutionary Guard had been "destroyed" in fighting Tuesday night and Wednesday. Yet, in the second statement in his name in two days, Saddam Hussein proclaimed that victory for his forces "is at hand." Hussein did not appear in person.

For the first time in months, Israeli and Palestinian security officials met for discussions, a source from the latter camp said. He said the meetings were held on two occasions last week on Israeli soil near the Gaza Strip. Despite the Palestinian terrorist bombing last Sunday in the coastal city of Netanya, such incidents have slacked off since the start of war in Iraq and the accession to office of new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. Still, Israeli troops rounded up almost 2,000 Palestinians in the West Bank Wednesday in a new sweep for suspected militants.

Twelve more deaths from the disease now known as SARS were reported by authorities in China, and the UN's World Health Organization said it did not believe the spread had peaked. The latest fatalities bring to at least 78 the number reported worldwide, with more than 2,300 other cases suspected and thousands more people under quarantine as a precaution. The WHO urged travelers to avoid southern China, where the infection is believed to have originated, and Hong Kong.

Another key proposal for political reform in Iran was rejected by the hard-line Guardian Council as "contrary to Islamic law and the Constitution." The measure would have taken away the unelected council's power to disqualify candidates for the presidency or for seats in parliament arbitrarily. The six-man council, which has systematically rejected reform measures, regards the power of rejection as necessary to keep liberal candidates off the ballot. Parliament could ask a higher body, the Expediency Council, to overrule the decision, but political observers suggested such a move would be futile.

A terrorist bomb exploded on a crowded ferry wharf at Davao in the southern Philippines, killing at least 15 people and injuring 34 others. Among the dead were two children and a Roman Catholic nun. There was no immediate claim of responsibility, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a Muslim rebel group suspected of the March 4 blast that killed 21 people at Davao's airport, condemned this attack and offered "our assistance" in investigating it.

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