Day 18: After the hiatus, a furious, chaotic, unsparing advance

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The third Sunday of the war was one of the fastest-moving days of the conflict so far, with advances, accidents and confusion at all four points of the compass, and in Baghdad itself. Long gone was the notion of a "strategic pause", as American troops waited for reinforcements before beginning the final assault on Baghdad and the British played cat-and-mouse with the more persistent contingents of Iraqis on the fringe of Basra in the south. For Iraq's main cities, the hiatus was well and truly over.

The third Sunday of the war was one of the fastest-moving days of the conflict so far, with advances, accidents and confusion at all four points of the compass, and in Baghdad itself. Long gone was the notion of a "strategic pause", as American troops waited for reinforcements before beginning the final assault on Baghdad and the British played cat-and-mouse with the more persistent contingents of Iraqis on the fringe of Basra in the south. For Iraq's main cities, the hiatus was well and truly over.

After more than two weeks hovering on Basra's outskirts, British forces entered the heart of the city ­ three British soldiers would die in the assault. Kelan John Turrington, an
18-year old fuslier, was named as one of the dead. They died although troops from the 7th Armoured Brigade, the Desert Rats, met only "isolated pockets" of resistance as tanks moved along three separate axes to the south and west of the centre. Resistance grew more sporadic the further the tanks advanced. The British military spokesman, Group Captain Al Lockwood, said the city's Baath party leadership had either been eliminated or had fled.

The original purpose of the move, it appeared, had been to continue the gradual advance and to set up checkpoints to secure the south-western suburbs, which included a fiercely contested industrial district, where Iraqi troops put up strong resistance from a large factory complex. But the declining levels of opposition encouraged the force to push on.

The disorganised state of the opposition suggested that command and control had broken down. Reports of looting and disorder in central Basra confirmed the impression that the cast-iron authority exerted by the Baath party had dissipated, with the military it relied upon for support.

The main convoy, of 40 armoured personnel carriers, was able to take the main road north into the city, untroubled by rocket-propelled grenades or even snipers, and an advance group was said to have been seen in Baghdad Street, Basra's main thoroughfare.

Lt-Col Hugh Blackman of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, said that the aggressive raids into city suburbs mounted in previous days had "snowballed" into a push into the city centre. What opposition there was, had been determined, but sporadic, with Iraqi soldiers "flinging themselves in ones and twos" at British armour.

Colonel Chris Vernon, a British military spokesman, said the British had seized an opportunity after receiving information about the whereabouts of local Baath party officials. "We are doing it with tanks that can take enemy small-arms fire and with our infantry."

The breakthrough appeared to have come the previous afternoon after two Allied aircraft used laser-guided bombs to destroy a villa in the city believed to belong to Ali Hassan al-Majid, a cousin of Saddam Hussein. GeneralMajid, known also as "Chemical Ali" was in charge of co-ordinating the defence of the whole of southern Iraq. But he owed his notoriety to his part in ordering the gassing of the Kurdish village of Halabja in 1988. It was not clear whether he survived the attack, but the body of one of his bodyguards was found soon after.

In Baghdad, which had suffered another night of heavy Allied bombardment, there was more evidence that the Baath regime was unravelling. While the air bombardment was heavy, for the first time there was no anti-aircraft fire.

Iraqi state television announced a travel ban to start immediately. "It has been decided that there will be a ban on the movement of vehicles and people from and into the capital, Baghdad, between 6pm and 6am until further notice," the presenter said. Columns of people and vehicles have been leaving the city in recent days, even at night, when the bombing raids are at their heaviest.

The Pentagon predictably said the ban would have no effect on the US military operation. "We will go wherever and whenever we want," a spokesman said.

Dozens of mortars pounded the centre of the capital, while heavy artillery fire was directed at the east of the city, as US forces closed in on one of the last parts of the city outskirts still outside Allied control. They also seized two of the main road arteries, to the east and north-west of the city. The city is now patrolled by air ­ fighter jets and unmanned reconnaissance drones ­ 24 hours a day. Artillery attacks through the morning concentrated on the suburb of Daura in the south-east of the city, where there is an oil refinery. Reinforcements arrived at Baghdad international airport, bringing the troop strength there to 7,000 ­ roughly four times the number that captured the airport on Friday. A further 2,000 vehicles crossed the Euphrates bridge, increasing the number of American armoured vehicles in the city's outskirts by one third.

The centre of the city still belonged to Saddam Hussein. Fedayeen militia in black uniforms and teenage soldiers patrolled the streets in an effort to protect the area.

Meanwhile, Jim Wilkinson, a spokesman for the US Central Command in Qatar, said that between 2,000 and 3,000 Iraqis had been killed when US infantry made their sweep of south-western districts on Saturday. Initially, the US had described their advance as a "poke" or a "probe". Yesterday's casualty assessments indicated that it had been far more aggressive than this on the US side. American officials gave no figures for their casualties, but revised the number for the whole conflict to 79 dead.

The tone of official Iraqi statements was changing. The Information Minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, who insisted on Saturday that Iraqi forces had re-captured the airport, "killing hundreds of American scoundrels", called on Iraqis yesterday to be vigilant and not to be taken in by rumours. He said that reports or sightings of US forces should not be ignored and military units should be alerted.

He said the enemy "might attempt to release rumours, believing it can cause confusion, and tell lies that there is a landing of its forces here and there". He also authorised the use of weapons by ordinary Iraqis, while warning that they should not fire without reason.

The Iraqi authorities took reporters to see a burnt-out US tank on the road south of Baghdad. Dozens of Iraqi civilians crowded around the reporters, shouting "Down, down Bush" and "Long live Saddam Hussein". But reporters also saw many more wrecked Iraqi tanks and artillery pieces.

The rapidly rising number of wounded is over-stretching the already limited facilities of Baghdad's hospitals. A spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross described an "emergency" situation, with hospital staff working around the clock "without respite". In a statement, the ICRC said: "No one is able to keep accurate statistics of the admitted and transferred war wounded any longer as one emergency arrival follows the other." There is insufficient clean water, mains electricity is cut and generators are proving inadequate.

US military officials said that the timing of a final assault on Baghdad would depend partly on progress elsewhere, including in the city of Karbala, 70 miles south of Baghdad, where renewed resistance emerged on Saturday night.

In a sign that the fight for Baghdad was almost won, the first US plane, a C-130 military transport, landed at the former Saddam airport.

The British government, at least, is still hoping that civilian deaths can be kept to a minimum. Speaking from his Nottingham constituency, the Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon, held out hopes of a swift victory in Baghdad, but also issued a veiled warning to the Americans to move into the Iraqi capital "in a cautious way", expressing the hope that the final advance would be as careful as the British advance into Basra had been. Speaking on the Breakfast with Frost programme, Mr Hoon also restated his defence of the use of cluster bombs by Allied forces.

As US troops moved to complete their cordon around Baghdad, reports came of a new, and especially damaging, "friendly fire" incident in the north of the country. Iraqi Kurdish militia had just announced a victory in their campaign to oust Iraqi forces from traditionally Kurdish areas, saying they had captured the town of Ain Sifni, north-east of Mosul. Their objective, they say, is not to capture Mosul but to ensure that the city of Dahuk is outside the range of Iraqi artillery. Within an hour of this rejoicing came the first sickeningly vivid account, from the BBC journalist John Simpson, of how the Kurdish convoy in which he was travelling had come under US fire.

"An American plane dropped the bomb right beside us. I saw it land about 10ft, 12ft away," he told BBC television. "This is a scene from hell here ... All the vehicles on fire. There are bodies burning around me, bodies lying around, bits of bodies on the ground ..." Simpson said he had counted 10 to 12 bodies; he also suffered shrapnel wounds to his leg.

Two hours later, the Pentagon said that three US special forces had been killed and five others wounded in what it called "a possible 'friendly fire' incident involving an F-15E Strike Eagle and coalition ground forces". It gave no details of Kurdish casualties.

No sooner had Central Command started to digest what Mr Simpson had called a "really bad own goal" than reports came from west of Baghdad that a convoy comprising mainly Russian diplomats, including the ambassador, Vladimir Titorenko, had come under fire as it made its way to the Syrian border. US military officials admitted that they had been given advance notice that the convoy was en route.

The Russian foreign ministry said that the convoy was about 5 miles outside Baghdad when it tried to drive around a shooting incident on the road ahead. It stopped a little further along when it saw a column of four-wheel-drives approaching and sent a car with a flag ahead to say who they were. "They started to shoot at it ­ the car," the Russian Interfax news agency said. "Thank God, no one was killed." Three were wounded.

Alexander Vershbow, the US ambassador to Moscow, said that he had been informed of the convoy and had promised US best efforts to expedite its passage to Syria. Most Russian diplomats had been evacuated several weeks before, but a small team had remained to keep the embassy open.

In the north of the country, Kurdish sources said 12 people had been killed, and Wajeed Barzani, brother of Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party and a contender to lead a united Kurdish region in a post-war federal Iraq, was seriously injured in the "friendly fire" incident. It had happened between Mosul and Kirkuk ­ showing Kurdish forces further inside Iraqi-held territory than stated earlier.

The Russian convoy, officials said, had successfully passed through US checkpoints west of Baghdad before it was shot at "in more open territory". It was expected in Damascus late last night. As it happened, the US National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, arrived in Moscow for talks. Her visit had not been announced in advance, but followed complaints by Russia of air strikes near its diplomatic compound in Baghdad. Russia has been opposed to the use of force in Iraq, where it has valuable oil interests.

The toll for the "friendly fire" disaster in the north was put at 18 dead and at least 45, mainly Kurdish fighters, injured.

Iraqi officials also denied US claims that "Chemical Ali" was dead. A Russian journalist, meanwhile, reported that the Russian diplomatic convoy had been caught in Iraqi-Allied crossfire. Three people had been wounded, one seriously.

In Basra, British troops, who had partially withdrawn from the centre in late morning, renewed their attack in late afternoon. They mounted an assault on the Baath headquarters, which they occupied, before moving to the edge of the old city. A British military source said: "This is it. We're in and we're not coming out."

Words of war

US Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz: "Six months is what happened in northern Iraq [for the Kurds to establish a government in 1991]. This is a more complicated situation. It will take more than that."

John Simpson: "This is just a scene from hell here. There are vehicles on fire, bodies lying around, and there are bits of bodies around me. They hit their own people."

Iraqi Brigadier Mohammed Jasim: "Yesterday morning, eight US tanks tried to enter Baghdad ... we confronted them and we destroyed all of them, killing four US soldiers."

Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, Iraqi Information Minister (asked whether "Chemical" Ali Hassan al-Majid had been killed): "Let them bask in their illusions."

Colonel Hugh Blackman, of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards: "We have certainly secured what is known to locals as the gateway to Basra and are moving further in. And the enemy have not been surrendering in large numbers – they have been fighting and dying, but that is their choice."

The day's events

SUNDAY 8.30am: US plane bombs a convoy of American special forces and Kurdish civilians in the north, killing up to 17 Kurds and US soldiers, and a BBC translator. At least 45 injured, including John Simpson of the BBC.

10.11: Russian embassy diplomats injured after a convoy evacuating staff and ambassador from Baghdad caught in crossfire.

10.45: Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, the Iraqi Information Minister, says 50 US troops killed and at least six tanks destroyed near Baghdad airport.

11.30: A number of foreign fighters captured and killed, and a camp possibly used by the regime to train foreign volunteers in terrorist tactics is destroyed, US claims.

1.40pm: Iraqi opposition fighters airlifted into south under control of Iraqi National Congress and its leader, Ahmed Chalabi, ABC television reports.

3.00: Iraqi army defending Baghdad is struggling to assemble 1,000 soldiers for battle, US commander says.

5.15: First US military aircraft – reportedly a C-130 cargo plane – lands at Baghdad airport.

9.08: MoD announces three British soldiers killed during attack on Basra.