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New push as Baghdad battle looms

A British checkpoint near Umm Qasr.  The U.S. is probing Monday's checkpoint killing of civilians.
A British checkpoint near Umm Qasr. The U.S. is probing Monday's checkpoint killing of civilians.

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Do you think Saddam Hussein is still alive?


BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- In what could signal the beginning of the battle for Baghdad, U.S. forces have started a major ground offensive against at least two Republican Guard divisions -- the Medina and Baghdad -- south of the Iraqi capital.

CNN Senior Pentagon Correspondent Jamie McIntyre reports Pentagon officials saying Wednesday U.S. forces are engaging Iraqi Republican Guard troops in a major fight in Karbala.

U.S. military officials are also saying coalition forces in the field have begun receiving a battle plan suggesting the focus of the ground war in Iraq soon will shift to Baghdad.

In a separate development, U.S. Central Command announced it had rescued a U.S. prisoner of war in southern Iraq. No details of the rescue were given but a relative confirmed to CNN the POW was Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch, 19, who had been listed as missing after an ambush near Nasiriya on March 23. (POW rescue)

In central Iraq, two surface-to-surface missiles landed near U.S. troops in the vicinity of the central Iraqi town of Najaf, CNN Correspondent Ryan Chilcote reported early Wednesday from the scene. Initial headcounts indicated no soldiers were injured, Chilcote added.

In Baghdad, several explosions were seen and heard in the Iraqi capital early Wednesday.

The explosions began around 4:00 a.m. (2300 Tuesday GMT) and continued for at least 30 minutes. Huge plumes of smoke drifted into the night sky as the sounds of heavy explosions echoed through the city.

Abu Dhabi Television reported some of the explosions hit central Baghdad near the Tigris River, near the Ministry of Information. That has been a target of repeated strikes by coalition fighters, Central Command has said.

An announcement that Saddam Hussein would address his nation Tuesday night raised the possibility that he would make an appearance proving that he is still alive, but instead, another Iraqi official read a statement he said was from the Iraqi leader. (Saddam no-show)

Minutes after Iraqi television announced the address, Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf appeared and read the statement, which promised that Muslims who die fighting will achieve immortality.

Other developments:

• Coalition forces rescued two U.S. Navy pilots Tuesday after their F-14 "Tomcat" crashed in southwest Iraq after suffering a mechanical error, a statement from the U.S. Central Command said. CNN Correspondent Harris Whitbeck said both of the aircraft's pilots bailed out of the jet 20,000 feet in the air. Neither were seriously injured, CentCom said. The F-14 apparently lost one engine when another aircraft tried to refuel it, Whitbeck reported.

• Iraq's vice president said Tuesday U.S. forces deliberately shot and killed an entire family of women and children at a checkpoint near Najaf, disputing U.S. contentions that the soldiers staffing the checkpoint opened fire only when the van failed to stop after repeated warnings. A U.S. investigation is underway. (Checkpoint killings)

• U.S. Central Command said Tuesday it had no evidence to support Iraq's claim that coalition bombs hit two buses filled with American and European "human shields" en route from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad Monday. (Iraq accuses U.S.)

• U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Tuesday that the "impact or the legitimacy of the war" in Iraq had been diminished because no weapons of mass destruction had been found by coalition forces.

• Coalition forces have captured an Iraqi general "with very valuable information" as well as a "death squad" training camp, U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said at Tuesday's Central Command briefing in Qatar.

Smoke from burning oil fires set ablaze by Iraqis as a shield against air raids obscures Baghdad.
Smoke from burning oil fires set ablaze by Iraqis as a shield against air raids obscures Baghdad.

• Two U.S. Navy pilots were rescued from the Persian Gulf Tuesday after their S-3B Viking aircraft slid off the USS Constellation flight deck shortly after touching down. (Pilots rescued)

• Intense coalition air raids subsided Tuesday along northern Iraq's 800 km (500-mile) front for the first time since the war started, but plenty of activity was taking place behind the scenes, CNN's Ben Wedeman said.

• Amid press reports Ukrainian arms dealers sold Russian-made anti-tank missiles to Iraq, the U.S. government says it is continuing an "ongoing dialogue" with Ukraine about weapons sales to Baghdad. (U.S. presses Ukraine)

• Fox News Channel executives and the Pentagon reached a deal in which correspondent Geraldo Rivera, who raised the military's ire when he reported operational details, will leave Iraq voluntarily rather than be expelled, Pentagon officials told CNN. (Rivera leaving Iraq)

• Three U.S. journalists, a Danish photographer and a peace activist missing in Iraq are safe and well in Jordan. (Missing journalists)

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

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