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Baghdad was turned into a battlefield on Monday as US troops attempted deep forays into the very heart of the Iraqi capital and staked claim to having seized three presidential palaces located in the city.
But defiant Iraqis insisted that the US incursions had been repulsed and that the city remained “safe and protected” under their control.
Amid the conflicting claims, huge explosions echoed intermittently across the besieged capital and gun battles erupted in various places of the embattled city.
Under the US-led ground offensive, Baghdad witnessed ferocious fighting with Iraqi soldiers taking up positions behind sandbags and trees that lined the streets.
As explosions grew louder, larger numbers of heavily armed Iraqi special forces took to the streets.
Clusters of men in both military fatigues and civilian clothes, with ammunition strapped to their chests, had taken up positions at the city’s intersections.
Several hours after the first claims were made by US officials that they had seized control of the Republican Palace on the bank of Tigris, heavy artillery fire could be heard from inside the compound.
A child receives care in a Baghdad hospital. Civilian casualties are rising
Correspondents of Al Jazeera television reporting from Baghdad said that there was still no independent confirmation of who controlled the palace although fighting was continuing there.
French news agency, AFP reported in the evening that at least four US Bradley fighting vehicles were positioned next to the palace.
The confusion over who controlled the palaces followed earlier US claims that 65 tanks and over 40 Bradley fighting vehicles had made an early morning incursion straight into the city centre.
“We have taken control of three palaces,” said Lt. Colonel Peter Bayer of the US 3rd Infantry division within hours of the day’s ground offensive on Baghdad.
But a defiant Iraqi Information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf claimed that the “city was safe and protected, still under Iraqi control.” “Don’t believe the liars,” the Iraqi minister, looking remarkably composed, told journalists in an impromptu street press conference.
The minister claimed that “US troops were getting slaughtered in hundreds at the gates of the capital” and blamed the media for portraying a misleading picture.
Amid the battles, President Saddam Hussein chaired a meeting of top military and political brass including his son Qussay, head of the elite Republican Guard, state-run television said, showing pictures.
Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, Defence Minister Sultan Hashem Ahmed and army chief Ibrahim Abdul Sattar attended.
Director general of the Iraqi presidency, Ahmed Hussein Khudayer, and Latif Nuseif Jasem, a member of the ruling Baath party's leadership, were also present.
Wearing military uniform, Saddam was shown sitting behind a desk in a large room with a bay window and drawn curtains. The location was not disclosed. A large map of Iraq was stuck on the wall behind the Iraqi leader.
Both sides suffered casualties in the day’s fighting in Baghdad. US officials admitted that at least three US Marines had died and several others injured after an Iraqi offensive on a US communication center in the city’s outskirts. There were no reports about the number of Iraqi dead and wounded.
US spokesman, Major Mike Birmingham, later told reporters on the ground that two more soldiers plus two journalists had died in a rocket attack on the tactical operations centre of the 2nd Brigade's combat team.
Lieutenant Colonel Peter Bayer, operations officer with the division, said 17 US vehicles were destroyed in the attack, 15 kilometres south of Baghdad.
Meanwhile, hospitals in Baghdad were overflowing with the civilian dead and the injured. The central Al Kindi hospital alone reported five dead and over 50 injured on Monday. Hard-pressed doctors said that they were facing a virtual deluge of the wounded.
Journalists reporting from the besieged city reported huge explosions ripping through the city in the early hours of the day. Several massive blasts were heard from the direction of the Republican Palace as layers of thick smoke billowed out. Fuel trenches inside the compound were also stated to be on fire.
Artillery fire was also heard from the direction of the Saddam International Airport, which had reportedly fallen to the US troops two days earlier.
An Al Jazeera television crew was shot at by US troops in the morning as they attempted to drive to the airport.
Al Jazeera television reported the presence of a large number of armed Iraqi men on Baghdad’s streets. Carrying rocket propelled grenades and ammunition strapping their chests, they stood guard at various cross sections.
Resistance to the US advance was reported to be fierce in several places. The Iraqis claimed to have thwarted US attempts to break into the city from Al Daura district.
Reuters correspondent, Khaled Oweis reported that Iraqi troops were blocking many of the bridges over the Tigris while Republic Guards were maintaining vigil around key ministries.
US military officials however insisted that they have punched their way through central Baghdad’s city center. With low flying US planes and a pilot-less reconnaissance aircraft prowling the city sky, the US claimed to have made rapid gains inside the city.
But Al Jazeera TV correspondent Tayseer Alouni reported eyewitnesses saying they had seen four destroyed US tanks in the southern district of Al Doura.
“The goal is not to take ground. This is an armoured raid through the city,” said captain Frank Thorp at the US war headquarters in Doha.
Military analysts said the US push was probably a probe to test the strength of Iraqi defences.
"We did not see US military forces fighting in Baghdad. US military units in Baghdad, are for reconnaissance. We will see a US penetration from a different side every day. The missions will try to test the powerful spot of the Iraqi forces. In this case, the air force may interfere and so all the arms, to guarantee a secured withdrawal," said General Mohamed Ali Bilal, Chief of Staff of Egyptian Forces in 1991 Gulf War".
With the battle coming to engulf the entire city, fear-stricken civilians generally stayed indoors. The city streets looked lot emptier than what it has been ever since the start of the invasion nearly three weeks ago. ---Al Jazeera and Agencies
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