American forces battled Iraqi defenders in fierce street fighting 50 miles south of Baghdad yesterday, pointing toward a drive on the capital. Army guards shot seven Iraqi women and children to death when their van refused orders to stop at a checkpoint, officials said.

U.S. troops and tanks encountered rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire in a dawn raid against Republican Guard defenders of Hindiyah, a key city astride the Euphrates River. Other units fought to isolate Najaf to the south and prevent attacks on U.S. supply lines.

“There are maneuvers going (on) to try to destroy those divisions that stand in our way” of Baghdad, Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said at the Pentagon. He added that more than 3,000 precision-guided bombs have been dropped on Iraq in the past few days, out of 8,000 in the entire war.

In the northern part of Iraq, commanders said an assault on a compound controlled by an Islamic Iraqi group turned up lists of names of suspected militants living in the United states.

And heavy bombing was reported during the day, from areas near the northern oil fields to downtown Baghdad to Republican Guard defensive positions south of the city. Bombing south of the capital, probably against Republican Guard positions, resumed at daylight today.

On the 13th day of Operation Iraqi Freedom, British officials claimed that 8,000 Iraqis have been taken prisoner so far.

But a defiant Iraqi foreign minister said invading forces face the choice between death or surrender. “Every day that passes the United States and Britain are sinking deeper in the mud of defeat,” said Naji Sabri.

Iraqi television aired footage of President Saddam Hussein and his sons Odai and Qusai, but there was no way of determining when the video was shot. Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on PBS that U.S. intelligence sources have been unable to confirm that Saddam survived the March 19 strike on a bunker where he was believed to be staying but said, “That doesn’t mean he’s dead.”

For his part, President Bush warned that Saddam “may try to bring terror to our shores.” The United States is acting to prevent such threats, he said as he issued his latest forecast of victory. “Day by day we are moving closer to Baghdad. Day by day we are moving closer to victory,” Bush said during a trip to Philadelphia.

Officials said the civilians were killed when Army guards opened fire at a checkpoint near Najaf, the same general area where four soldiers from the same unit were killed in a weekend car bombing. This time, officials said Army guards fired warning shots at the vehicle carrying 13 people, then fired into its engine, but neither action stopped the van. Two other civilians were injured and four unharmed in the incident, which the military is investigating.

“In light of recent terrorist attacks by the Iraqi regime, the soldiers exercised considerable restraint to avoid the unnecessary loss of life,” said a statement from U.S. Central Command.

The official casualty count for Americans stood at 44 dead, seven captured and 16 missing. The British death toll rose to 26 with the death of a soldier yesterday in southern Iraq.

Iraqi officials have given no estimate of military casualties but have said at least 425 civilians have been killed and thousands wounded.

Some defecting Iraqis described harrowing conditions, and not only from American air bombardments.

One, who agreed to talk on condition his name not be used, said agents of the ruling Baath party attempted to shoot deserters. “But we decided it was either die from an American bomb or be killed by our own people,” he said in the Kurdish town of Kalak in northern Iraq.

American and British warplanes continued to bomb at will. Thunderous explosions rocked the Baghdad skyline after dark, and smoke billowed from the Old Palace presidential compound. Iraqi state-run television was briefly bombed off the air, and nearly all telephone service was knocked out in the capital.

Officials in Biyare, in northern Iraq, said the assault on a compound controlled by Ansar al-Islam turned up documents, computer discs and other material belonging to Arab fighters from around the Middle East. The administration has longed claimed that the Iraqi-based group and al-Qaida are connected. But there was no immediate indication of evidence that tied Ansar to Saddam.

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