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Coalition progress 'phenomenal,' DOD officials say

WASHINGTON -- Six days into the campaign against Iraq and the coalition progress has been "phenomenal," Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said today.

Clarke, briefing at a Pentagon news conference with Army Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, said the coalition is making progress on the sea, land and air.

"On the sixth day of this campaign, going against a regime that knows that the days are numbered, we have air dominance, we have Special Forces in the north, the south and the west, the main ground forces are moving at a phenomenal pace toward the north, closing in on Baghdad," she said. "We've de-mined the waterways so the humanitarian assistance can and is coming in. We're securing the ... oil fields in the south for the benefit of the Iraqi people."

McChrystal, the Joint Staff's vice chief for operations, gave a bit more detail. He said more than 250,000 Americans are involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom. More than 40,000 coalition troops, mostly British, are also helping liberate the country.

"Our ground forces are pushing north toward Baghdad and al Kut," he said. "We are more than 220 miles into Iraqi territory and have done it in only six days in spite of difficult weather." The general gave more details on the fighting yesterday around an Najaf.

"The 7th Cavalry was engaged by irregular forces firing rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank weapons," he said. "In the middle of bad conditions, our forces responded by destroying more than 30 enemy vehicles and killing enemy personnel in the hundreds. No U.S. forces were killed in the exchange."

Many of the Iraqis wore civilian clothes and drove civilian vehicles, he said.

Clarke said the Iraqi flouting of international conventions is getting more flagrant.

"In southern Iraq yesterday, the Iraqi military even used a hospital as a fortress, firing on Marines," she said. "The building was clearly marked as a hospital by a flag with a red crescent, designed to protect it from attack." Even during war, hospitals are sacrosanct, she added.

"When the Marines took over the building," she continued, "they found a den of destruction. They captured 170 Iraqi troops, they found about 200 weapons, stockpiles of ammunition, and 3,000 chemical suits with masks, and even a tank."

In a chilling note, the Marines also discovered the Iraqis had stockpiled medicine to counter nerve agent. "Since coalition forces obviously do not have or use nerve gas, the conclusion is inescapable -- the enemy may be planning to use such agents against us or the Iraqi people," she said.

The air campaign against the regime continues with coalition aircraft flying almost 700 sorties yesterday, McChrystal said. Most of the attack sorties were aimed at Iraqi regime targets in the vicinity of Baghdad.

Coalition aircraft also hit missile sites throughout southern and western Iraq. "Since March 20, our forces have fired more than 600 Tomahawks and dropped more than 4,300 precision-guided weapons," he said.

DOD officials said about 80 percent of the aerial weapons used in the campaign to date are precision-guided munitions.

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