BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – American troops and tanks bore down on Baghdad with unstoppable force yesterday, seizing two of Saddam Hussein’s opulent palaces and bombing a building where the Iraqi leader and other regime officials were believed to be staying.

A lone B-1B bomber carried out the strike on what U.S. officials described as a “leadership target” – senior Iraqi officials possibly including Saddam and his two sons. It was not immediately clear whether any of them were killed or wounded.

Earlier yesterday, U.S. and British officials said they believed Saddam’s top commander in southern Iraq had been killed in a U.S. airstrike.

The attacks came as American forces maneuvered through the capital with near impunity.

Some Iraqi soldiers jumped into the Tigris River to flee the advancing column of more than 100 armored vehicles. A dozen others were captured and placed inside a hastily erected POW pen on the grounds of the bombed-out, blue-and-gold-domed New Presidential Palace.

An estimated 600 to 1,000 Iraqi troops were killed during the operation, said Col. David Perkins. “We had a lot of suicide attackers today,” he said. “These guys are going to die in droves … They keep trying to ram the tanks with car bombs.”

U.S. troops toppled a 40-foot statue of Saddam and seized another of his many palaces, the Sojoud. Tank-killing A-10 Warthog planes and pilotless drones provided air cover as Americans briefly surrounded another prominent symbol of Saddam’s power, the Information Ministry, as well as the Al-Rashid hotel.

The attack on the leadership target – reminiscent of the opening volley of the war on March 19 aimed at Saddam – occurred in Baghdad’s upscale Mansour neighborhood. U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonmymity, said American intelligence learned yesterday morning of a high-level meeting in Baghdad between senior Iraqi intelligence officials and, possibly, Saddam and his two sons, Qusai and Odai.

The bombardment left a huge hole where the building had been and reduced three adjoining houses to a heap of concrete, mangled iron rods and furniture.

A B-1B bomber dropped four 2,000-pound bunker-penetrating bombs on a residential building. “We are confirming that a leadership target was indeed hit very hard,” said Marine Maj. Brad Bartelt, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command in Qatar. He had no information of the results of the attack.

It was the third straight day the Army penetrated Saddam’s seat of power. This time, though, there were plans to stay. Rather than withdrawing at nightfall, as units did over the weekend, members of the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division hunkered down for the night at the sprawling, splendored New Presidential Palace where Saddam once slept.

Several miles away, two soldiers and two journalists were killed in a rocket attack on the 3rd Infantry Division south of Baghdad, the U.S. Central Command reported. Another 15 soldiers were injured in the attack on an infantry position south of the city.

On the other side of town, Marines encountered tough fighting as they entered Baghdad for the first time, coming under machine gun fire. Lt. Col. B.P. McCoy said two Marines were killed and two were injured after an artillery shell hit their armored personnel carrier.

Marines crossed into Baghdad from the east, their engineers deploying a temporary pontoon bridge over a canal at the southern edge of the city after Iraqis rendered the permanent structure unsafe for heavy, armored vehicles.

Hours later, the sound of occasional American artillery split the night air.

The regime, its brutal hold on a country of 24 million slipping away, denied all of it. “There is no presence of American infidels in the city of Baghdad, at all,” insisted Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf.

The Iraqi government maintained its hold over state-run television and radio – arguably its most important remaining levers of control over the country – and broadcast emotional appeals to resist U.S. forces. Also shown were images of Saddam meeting with key advisers.

The American military flexed its muscle in downtown Baghdad while British officials said one of the regime’s most brutal leaders, Ali Hassan al-Majid, had apparently been killed in a weekend airstrike in the southern city of Basra.

A cousin of Saddam, al-Majid was dubbed “Chemical Ali” for ordering a poison gas attack that killed thousands of Kurds in 1988.

Defense officials also said testing was under way on samples taken from a site where soldiers found metal drums possibly containing nerve gas or another type of chemical weapon. A local commander said it was possible the substance was a pesticide, since it was found at an agricultural site near Hindiyah, south of Baghdad.

After a two-week siege, British forces claimed control over Basra, a city of 1.3 million. Hundreds of civilians, women in chadors and barefoot children among them, poured into the street to welcome the invaders. Some handed pink carnations to the British troops in appreciation.

American and British troops advanced in Iraq as their political leaders were meeting in Belfast, Northern Ireland. For President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, it was the second summit since the fighting began.

“The hostilities phase is coming to a conclusion,” Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters. Without elaboration, he said the U.S. government is sending a team this week to Iraq to begin laying the groundwork for an interim authority.

In the war zone, Americans felt confident enough for Gen. Tommy Franks, overall commander of Operation Iraqi Freedom, to visit troops in Najaf and elsewhere. The four-star general wore camouflaged body armor and a black beret as his Black Hawk helicopter carried him on his tour.

Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff, said all but “a couple of dozen” of the Iraqi military’s tanks had been destroyed in less than three weeks of combat.

Senior officials at the Pentagon said the Army assault into Baghdad was part of an attempt to persuade Iraqi forces that further resistance was futile. The military would like to avoid an all-out urban battle in Baghdad, with its 5 million inhabitants.

“We can basically go wherever we want, whenever we want, even if Saddam is still alive,” said Perkins, who commanded the Army troops inside the city.

Missiles screamed overhead and explosions shook buildings inside the city as more than 70 Army tanks, more than 60 Bradley fighting vehicles and an estimated 3,000 troops pushed their way into the heart of Baghdad.

Iraqi snipers fired on soldiers from rooms in the al-Rashid hotel, and tanks returned fire with their main guns and .50-caliber machine guns.

Across the river from the New Presidential Palace, Iraqis took up positions around the University of Baghdad, firing heavy machine guns across the 400-yard width of the Tigris River. Americans responded with mortar fire and close air support to rout the Iraqis.

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