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U.S.-led coalition pushes toward Baghdad

Coalition taking aim at Republican Guard

Iraqi children look Monday through a window in a suburb of Baghdad, as smoke rises from oil fires that ring the city as a defense.
Iraqi children look Monday through a window in a suburb of Baghdad, as smoke rises from oil fires that ring the city as a defense.

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(CNN) -- With soldiers from the U.S. Army's V Corps poised to take on an elite Iraqi Republican Guard division less than 60 miles from Baghdad, coalition planes and helicopters pounded Iraqi positions to clear a path toward the Iraqi capital.

Large explosions and anti-aircraft tracer fire lit the night skies over Baghdad early Tuesday morning, with at least five bombing waves hitting the Iraqi capital since darkness fell.

Among the buildings destroyed Monday was an Iraqi air force complex. Saddam International Airport was also being targeted.

Pentagon officials said about half of the airstrikes made in the last 36 hours were directed toward Republican Guard units.

"I am sure that [the Medina Division] has been degraded significantly in the last 48 hours or so. I couldn't judge its current strength," said Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal at a news briefing Monday. He called the division "a linchpin to the consistency of the Republican Guard defense."

Gen. Tommy Franks, the head of U.S. Central Command, said Republican Guard units "will continue to be hit ... at points and places and times that make sense to us. The effect has been very positive for us."

But Franks warned: "We will see casualties in the days ahead."

Thirty-nine U.S. and British military personnel have been confirmed killed since the Iraqi conflict began. (Coalition casualties)

Coalition forces early Tuesday also shelled Nasiriya, home to key bridges across the Euphrates River in southern Iraq. The city has been the scene of the most intense fighting to date: Ten Marines were killed in combat there Sunday, 12 were injured and 16 are considered missing, a senior commander in the battle told CNN.

They blew up anti-aircraft guns, rocket-propelled grenades and thousands of rounds of ammunition left by the enemy -- explosions that shook the earth and turned the sky black with smoke.

The fierce resistance from Iraqi troops in the south also resulted in the first British combat death of the war, a soldier killed in action Monday near Basra in southern Iraq. Two British soldiers are missing after an attack Sunday on their vehicles in southern Iraq.

U.S. and coalition planes also struck the northern Iraqi city of Mosul for the third night in a row early Tuesday. Large explosions and anti-aircraft fire could be seen by a CNN crew in Kalak, about 28 miles east of Mosul.

Helicopters fly in 'hornet's nest'

Before dawn Monday, the V Corps, 11th Attack Helicopter Regiment, targeted Iraqi positions between the cities of Hillah and Karbala. U.S. Apache attack helicopters fought a fierce battle with Iraq's Republican Guard units.

One U.S. pilot described the situation as a "hornet's nest," with Iraqis peppering helicopters with small arms and anti-aircraft fire from "all sides." Most pilots said they sustained 15 to 20 rounds, including a rocket-propelled grenade in one instance. (Full story)

Later Monday, Abu Dhabi TV aired video shot by Iraqi TV in Baghdad of two U.S. pilots Iraq claims it captured after their Apache attack helicopter went down near Karbala. The footage shows Chief Warrant Officers Ronald D. Young Jr. and David S. Williams, wearing flight suits and appearing to be in good condition. (Full story)

Iraq's top diplomat said Monday in New York that the U.S.-led war against Iraq could last for years.

"I don't think it'll be a short war," Ambassador Mohammed Aldouri told CNN. "If the Americans will not stop this aggression, the war will continue for years."

The first injured U.S. troops arrive at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
The first injured U.S. troops arrive at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

Throughout Iraq, he said, Iraqi civilians have joined the fight. "We'll see a unified society, a unified army," he said.

But in Qatar, Franks said coalition forces have taken 3,000 "enemy prisoners." Coalition officials have said thousands more Iraqi troops have put down their weapons and gone home, following U.S. and British instructions.

At least seven members of the U.S. military have been taken prisoner. Franks said he is sure the Red Cross will be able to visit the captured Americans "very soon" to make sure "they're well cared for."

On Sunday, Iraqi television aired footage showing dead U.S. soldiers and interviews with four members of the U.S. 507th Maintenance Company at Fort Bliss Texas, including Army Spc. Joseph Hudson, Pfc. Patrick Miller, Spc. Shoshana Johnson and Spc. Edgar Hernandez. (Full story)

Other developments

• The deaths of five Syrian civilians in a U.S. airstrike on a bridge in northwestern Iraq were "regrettable," a U.S. military spokesman said Monday, adding the bus they were on came into view only after a bomb had been released. (Full story)

• British Prime Minister Tony Blair will come to the United States this week for talks with President Bush at Camp David, sources told CNN Monday. (Full story)

• President Bush Monday gave key lawmakers the administration's first estimate of the cost of war with Iraq -- about $75 billion, officials said. (Full story)

• The ambassadors of the Arab group at the United Nations Monday called for an urgent meeting of the Security Council to address "the aggression against Iraq." (Full story)

• Coalition warplanes on the USS Theodore Roosevelt in the eastern Mediterranean are switching strategy from bombing missions with set targets to missions where they are authorized to attack targets of opportunity in "air interdiction zones" and to supply close air support to ground forces if they are summoned, sources said.

• Iraqi television aired a defiant speech by Saddam Hussein early Monday in which the Iraqi leader rallied his troops and promised victory. "They are in a dilemma; they are in trouble now," Saddam said of the U.S.-led coalition. "Hate them and strike them." (Full story)

• U.S. officials have intelligence reports suggesting the Iraqi Republican Guard may have been ordered to use chemical weapons against U.S. forces if they cross a "red line" drawn around Baghdad, they told CNN Monday. "That doesn't mean they will do it," said one official, "but there have been reports such orders may have been issued."

• U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. Henry Pete Osman, in charge of military coordination and liaison for Iraq's northern front, arrived in the area Monday, signaling the much-anticipated opening of a second front. The development came amid discussions between U.S. and Turkish officials on how to deal with northern Iraq. (Full story)

• The first group of wounded U.S. troops arrived Monday at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Their arrival was broadcast live, showing 12 injured people being carried off a C-141 cargo plane by stretcher and placed onto waiting medical evacuation buses. (Full story)

CNN Correspondents Jason Bellini, Karl Penhaul, Nic Robertson, Walter Rodgers, Brent Sadler, Martin Savidge, Kevin Sites, Barbara Starr and Alessio Vinci contributed to this report.

EDITOR'S NOTE: CNN's policy is to not report information that puts operational security at risk.

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