US tanks meet weak Baghdad resistance

Lopsided battles left two Iraqi ministries smoldering yesterday as US forces moved in.

Tank fire echoed across the Tigris river Tuesday morning, and dark gray smoke rose from the red-brick Iraqi Planning Ministry on the west bank. The crackle of small arms fire suggested there were Iraqi fighters inside. Not for long.

A slow-moving, heavily armored American A-10 aircraft swept past and strafed the building - again and again. After three passes, the ministry caught ablaze and burnt brightly through the dusty murk of the early morning.

The lopsided battle of Baghdad continued for more than three hours yesterday, with US troops focusing their fire on the buildings occupied by the Planning and Information Ministries. The 50 or so lightly armed Iraqi troops defending the ministry buildings did not appear to have any heavy artillery or armor.

Just two days earlier, the Iraqi soldiers could be seen brewing tea on small stoves in a small park which stretches between the ministry buildings. The soldiers had dug trenches and covered them with planks. Branches torn from nearby trees camouflaged the foxholes, which were fortified with piles of sandbags.

In the third hour of the battle, after securing their initial objectives, a number of American M-1 Abrams tanks took up positions along the west bank of the Tigris. Two of them lumbered onto the Jamhuriya bridge and started firing toward the next bridge to the north, the Sinak.

The tanks could be clearly seen from the Palestine Hotel a mile away. At one point the tanks pulled back for a few minutes, but raced back onto the bridge, firing before they came to a halt. By midmorning, the battle appeared to be over but the tanks remained on the bridge.

At one point, a US tank shell hit the 15th floor of the Palestine Hotel, where the international media are staying, killing two journalists and injuring three others. US officials said they were retaliating against fire from the hotel lobby.

The Pentagon said that a "leadership target" in the Mansour residential area was bombed on Monday. Journalists were taken by Iraqi officials to a huge crater yesterday, the result of Monday's attack which officials said had killed at least nine civilians. There was no confirmation on whether the Iraqi president or his sons had been there. No member of the Iraqi government other than the information minister has been seen in public for three days now. Officials refuse to answer questions on the health or whereabouts of Saddam Hussein.

The Iraq information minister, Mohammed Saeed Sahaf, appeared at the Palestine Hotel yesterday to deliver a daily message that sounds increasingly at odds with events here in the city. "We are going to tackle them and going to destroy them," he told foreign journalists. "They are going to surrender or be burned in their tanks. Baghdad is bracing to pummel the invaders."

A US official in Washington notes: "Until such time as you can confirm [Saddam's] dead, there are a lot of other senior officials ... who can give impression that the regime is at least still in Baghdad. And there are segments of the population that as long as they believe Saddam is alive, or the regime continues to function, are not going to be in any hurry to rise up."

Meanwhile, hospitals in Baghdad are receiving hundreds of casualties a day, both civilian and military. Outside one hospital, a Red Cross truck was unloading hundreds of one-liter bags of clean water.

Lindsey Hilsum and Tim Lambon are with Britain's Channel 4 News. Staff writer Faye Bowers contributed to this report from Washington.

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