WASHINGTON (AP) – U.S. ground forces in central Iraq are gathering fresh combat power, probing enemy defenses and allowing time for allied airpower to weaken Iraq’s Republican Guard around Baghdad before launching a multi-pronged attack on the capital, officials said yesterday.

The speed of the initial U.S. ground attack into Iraq from Kuwait last week led many to assume Baghdad would be assaulted soon, but now that appears to be many days away.

Severe sandstorms, for one thing, are affecting the timetable. Apache helicopters that made an initial round of strikes against armor of the Medina division of the Republican Guard on Monday have been grounded since. More Apaches are being brought to the area.

The United States also opened a northern front yesterday by dropping 1,000 paratroopers of the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade into an unspecified location in Kurdish-controlled territory in northern Iraq. Their tanks, other vehicles and supplies will be airlifted in behind them.

A key question was whether the Republican Guard troops – the best trained and equipped of Saddam Hussein’s military forces – would make the first move by coming out of their dug-in positions on the outskirts of Baghdad, either to attack or to pull back into the urban center.

Some reports from the battlefield yesterday indicated a portion of the Al Nida armored division of the Republican Guard was driving south toward U.S. forces.

Others said hundreds of suspected paramilitary forces in civilian vehicles were on the move in roughly the same direction.

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