A daily commentary by Brian Whitaker, originally published on the Guardian website.
Tony Blair need not go into exile just yet. Last night his government won formal backing for war with Iraq when parliament voted 2-1 in favour. This was despite the biggest ever revolt by MPs. Among the ruling Labour party, 139 members rebelled, and 16 Conservatives, 53 Liberal Democrats and 11 others joined them. But because of Mr Blair's massive built-in majority, it was still well short of the total that might have forced regime change in Britain.
In other developments overnight, the Turkish government said it will try again to get permission from parliament for US warplanes to fly over its territory, and the White House suddenly changed the terms of its ultimatum to Saddam Hussein.
The Iraqi leader had earlier been given 48 hours to avert war by fleeing Iraq along with his two appalling sons, but last night White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said US forces would invade "no matter what". The excuse, apparently, is that they need to hunt for weapons of mass destruction.
The official UN weapons inspectors, meanwhile, have all been evacuated from Iraq - several of them complaining about the curtailment of their work and the aspersions that have been cast on their professional abilities. What chance they'll sue President Bush for constructive dismissal?
Colin Powell claimed last night that 45 countries have now joined the "coalition of the willing" against Iraq. They include such key players as Afghanistan, Latvia, Lithuania, Nicaragua and Uzbekistan, but 15 of them have asked not to be named until they see which way the war is going.
In some cases, calling these countries supporters of the war would be extremely generous with the truth - a bit like describing concrete posts that hold up a football stadium as "supporters" of Manchester United. Spain, whose smiling little prime minister managed to get his photo taken next to George Bush and Mr Blair at the weekend, has confirmed that it won't actually be sending any troops.
Talking of support, an opinion poll this morning by the Washington-based Pew Research Center finds rapidly declining enthusiasm for the United States in Europe. In Italy, only 34% view the US favourably, compared with 70% in 2002. The current figure for Britain is 48%, Spain 14%, France 31% and Germany 25%.
The Iraqi parliament is meeting this morning, probably for the last time under its present management. Don't expect any surprises there - members do exactly what they're told, unlike MPs in Britain. It's just an exercise in spreading responsibility for Iraq's fate beyond Saddam and his immediate circle. The session began with the parliamentary speaker urging Iraqis to rally behind their leader.
At 1500 GMT foreign ministers will get together at the UN Security Council where the chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, is due to give a report spelling out what Iraq should do to prove that it has disarmed. This is now totally irrelevant but France, Germany and Russia may seize the opportunity to denounce, once again, the coming invasion.
The American ultimatum to Iraq expires tonight at 0115 GMT (0415 in Baghdad), and war could come any time after that. President Bush might wait another day or two until Turkey sorts its position out or weather conditions are favourable, but it's probably still worth tuning in to CNN or al-Jazeera tonight in case he does launch the most expensive (and lethal) fireworks display the world has ever seen.
An Iraqi correspondent in Baghdad says everyone there is trying to buy earplugs, so as not to lose too much sleep, but the shops have run out. If anyone has ideas for DIY earplugs, let us know and we'll pass the message on.
Weather in Baghdad tonight: passing clouds, wind west-south-west at 11 mph, humidity 45%, visibility 17 miles. Minimum temperature 57 F (14 C), which the Lycos forecast describes as "refreshingly cool".
It's begun. Well, sort of ... but more with a whimper than a bang. Last night's deadline for Saddam Hussein to flee Iraq came and went, and at first nothing happened. For almost two hours, CNN's cameras - fixed on the roof of the information ministry in Baghdad - showed undramatic scenes of traffic lights changing in the street below and occasional vehicles passing.
Shortly before 0300 GMT, there were flashes in the distance, accompanied by anti-aircraft fire from the Iraqis - though correspondents on the ground heard no planes. There was also a brief flurry of excitement when someone claimed the Americans had taken over the main Iraqi radio station but others who tuned in to listen found everything normal.
It turned out that President George Bush had not really meant to start the war last night but changed his mind when a "target of opportunity" turned up. It appears that US military intelligence thought they knew where Saddam Hussein was, along with other members of his regime, and proposed a "decapitation strike". If successful, this would have brought the war to a halt even before it had properly got under way.
The assassination plan was presented to Mr Bush at a four-hour meeting which ended at 0020 GMT - just in time for the president to have what the White House described as a "relaxing dinner" with his wife. On the way to dinner, Mr Bush told his speechwriter to get busy.
At 0315 GMT he appeared on television to announce that "coalition" forces were in the early stages of military operations against selective targets. Every effort would be made, he said, to show respect for Iraqi citizens, for the country's "great civilisation" and its religious faiths.
But there would be no half-measures, he warned. "We will accept no outcome but victory."
With these words, according to CNN, Mr Bush went straight to bed.
CNN also promised a live statement from Tony Blair at 0330 GMT, but if the British prime minister did wake up to echo his master's voice, CNN didn't bother to show it.
Details of last night's "decapitation strike" are still sketchy, but it seems they targeted two sites on the southern outskirts of Baghdad. More than 40 satellite-guided cruise missiles were reportedly used, mainly launched from ships and submarines. A number of F-117 stealth fighter-bombers also took part.
The Pentagon later released video clips, filmed in the dark, showing flashes and puffs of smoke as cruise missiles blasted off from a warship. These historic pictures, a CNN reporter enthused, had been transmitted back to Washington by the technological miracle of email.
According to the Iraqi authorities, 10 people died in the attack last night - though Saddam Hussein was apparently not among them.
One of the CNN's armchair generals pointed out that decapitation strikes rarely succeed. But he added that it would still be "very disconcerting" for Saddam, who would now be wondering if someone inside the regime was giving the US information as to his whereabouts.
That, of course, depends on what the missiles actually hit. If US intelligence about the target of opportunity was as inaccurate as it appears, Saddam is probably feeling rather relieved.
Some experts see last night's assassination attempt as part of a calculated psychological war, which includes the rumours circulated yesterday that Tariq Aziz, Iraq's deputy prime minister, had either defected or been killed.
Such things are liable to damage the regime's morale if people start to believe them, and yesterday Mr Aziz was forced to call a hasty press conference in order to prove he was still alive.
Today, Iraq responded to the "decapitation strike" with a radio message from Saddam's son, Udai, followed by the information minister who told listeners "victory is certain, certain, certain", and finally a TV appearance by Saddam Hussein (or at least someone looking very much like him). He seemed to have acquired a new pair of spectacles for the occasion, with impressively thick black rims.
Latest word from the US is that the main "shock and awe" attack on Baghdad is still some hours away - probably after nightfall this evening.
President Bush's diary for the next 24 hours is clear of official engagements, except for another dinner - not with his wife this time, but with the president of Cameroon.
Weather in Baghdad today: mild, with more sun than clouds. Tonight: broken clouds, cool.
After an initial diversion to take pot-shots at Saddam Hussein yesterday, the war is now well under way, but mercifully without the "shock and awe" tactics that had been predicted for the opening phase.
Military chiefs have not entirely abandoned the idea of a massive bombing campaign but are waiting to see if Iraqi forces can be persuaded to give up the fight without it.
If "shock and awe" can be avoided there will be less risk of heavy civilian casualties and less damage to be repaired afterwards. So far, there has been little resistance from the Iraqi army, which is heavily outgunned by western technology - though the threat to invading forces could become more serious as they approach Baghdad.
Iraq has fired a number of missiles at Kuwait and there is argument as to whether any of them were Scuds. If they were, it would be proof that Saddam has been lying about his weaponry.
An unspecified number of oil fires have been detected by satellites, suggesting that Saddam may be resorting to scorched-earth tactics, as he did towards the end of the 1991 war in Kuwait. If carried out on a large scale, this would not only slow progress of the invasion but delay Iraq's postwar recovery as well as causing long-term environmental damage.
Yesterday, American and British forces advanced into southern Iraq, with British marines launching an assault on the strategically important Faw peninsula. The port of Umm Qasr, just across the border from Kuwait, was also captured.
This morning, there are reports of US tanks moving rapidly through the desert towards Baghdad, meeting little resistance along the way. Whether they are heading immediately to Baghdad is unclear - it could be partly a psychological move to frighten the Iraqi leadership.
The war also brought its first western casualties yesterday when a helicopter crashed in Kuwait, killing 12 British soldiers and four American crew. There is no suggestion that the aircraft was shot down.
Baghdad came under renewed attack last night from some 60 cruise missiles aimed at government and military targets. One of the buildings hit was the planning ministry. Explosions were also heard in Basra in southern Iraq and Mosul in the north.
Today, apart from the fast-moving developments in the south, attention is also likely to focus on the north, where the picture is still far from clear. The US is anxious to secure this area early because of the possibility of independent action by Kurdish forces, or even by Turkey.
Outside Iraq, opposition to the war continues strongly. Britain and France clashed again last night at a European summit in Brussels. One of the arguments - which is likely to grow louder in the coming weeks - is about who should pay for rebuilding Iraq after the war. France has already suggested that those who cause the damage should foot the bill.
On the streets, there have also been worldwide protests, with hundreds arrested in the United States. In Britain, even schoolchildren have been skipping classes to attend demonstrations - some of them organised via text messages. Riot police were out in force in Cairo yesterday, lashing out with batons at protesters who directed their anger at President Hosni Mubarak as well as the United States.
As today is the first Friday since the outbreak of war - a Muslim holiday - further protests can be expected in the Middle East after midday prayers.
Anger may be further inflamed by Israel's announcement that the US has offered $10bn (£6.4bn) to support its crisis-ridden economy. Although the US has not confirmed the offer, this is liable to be viewed in the region as further evidence of American double standards.
It is day five, and suddenly the clinical, precision war talked about by General Tommy Franks at the Centcom press conference on Saturday is looking very messy.
Five US soldiers from a maintenance unit, including a woman, were paraded on Iraqi television yesterday afternoon, looking battered and confused. They had been taken prisoner after their vehicle lost its way in Suq al-Shuyukh, near Nassiriya.
The Arab satellite channel, al-Jazeera, also showed pictures of the corpses of several US soldiers who were killed in the same area.
Terry Lloyd, a reporter with the British television news channel ITN, was confirmed dead yesterday. Two of his colleagues are still missing in the Basra area.
Evidence of civilian casualties on the Iraqi side emerged over the weekend, when al-Jazeera broadcast horrific pictures from both Basra, in the south, and the area in which the Ansar al-Islam group was bombed, in the north. One showed a child's head split open.
Although some of the invasion forces have sped on towards Baghdad, others have been left behind to mop up local resistance, a job which is proving a lot more difficult than reports had at first suggested.
Umm Qasr, the port town just across the border from Kuwait, has been reported as having been "secured" several times, but it is still not certain whether the invasion forces have total control there.
The Iraqi vice-president, Taha Yassin Ramadan, yesterday gave an upbeat press conference, claiming that "operations are going on in an excellent and comfortable manner for Iraq".
He continued ominously: "They say that they are heading towards Baghdad, and that they covered more than 160 or 180km towards Baghdad.
"I would like to tell them that, in the course that they are following, let them continue up to 300km and let them mobilise all the tanks and marines they have, and we will not clash with them soon. We will give them enough time.
"However, in any contact with any Iraqi village or city, they [the invasion forces] will find what they are now witnessing in Umm Qasr and Suq al-Shuyukh."
This morning, two British soldiers were reported missing after their vehicle came under fire in southern Iraq. The defence ministry in London gave no further details.
Over the weekend, a British Tornado warplane returning from a mission in Iraq was mistaken for an incoming missile, and was shot down by Patriot rockets in Kuwait. The crew of two died.
In a bizarre incident on Saturday, one US soldier died and 15 more were injured when one of their colleagues threw grenades into tents at a camp in Kuwait.
This was at first reported as a terrorist attack, but it seems more reminiscent of the "fragging" phenomenon witnessed during the Vietnam war, when disaffected soldiers attacked their officers with fragmentation grenades on several occasions.
So far, most of the confirmed deaths among the invasion forces have not come as a result of combat with Iraqis. Fourteen British and six US personnel have died in accidents, two Britons have been killed by friendly fire, and one American died in the grenade incident.
A crisis is also brewing on the northern border, where Turkish forces appear to have defied the US by entering the Kurdish area of Iraq. Adopting the same line of argument used by the US to justify its own invasion, Turkey says that it is merely taking "pre-emptive action".
An exclusive report in the Jerusalem Post this morning says that US forces are investigating a large factory in southern Iraq that could be connected with chemical weapons. If this turns out to be true, it would provide a huge boost to those who favoured military action rather than continued weapons inspections.
As yet, however, there is no confirmation, but more details may emerge during the course of the day.
Meanwhile, in a televised address to the country, the Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, promised triumph over the coalition forces. He hailed Iraqi resistance and said: "Be patient, victory is coming."
The only good news today is that the invasion forces are now within 50 miles or so of Baghdad - though a look back through the old newspapers shows that similar claims have been made for several days. The difference now, perhaps, is that there are far more American and British troops near the Iraqi capital than before.
In preparation for an assault on Baghdad, invasion forces have begun an intensive bombardment of Iraqi Republican Guard bunkers 30 miles outside the city. This, in the view of many, marks a crucial point in the war.
The advance on Baghdad is seen as good news by the prime minister, Tony Blair, who yesterday promised "certain victory".
"The vital goal is to reach Baghdad as swiftly as possible, thus bringing the end of the regime closer," he said.
But Saddam Hussein, who gave a televised speech yesterday, also saw the US-British advance as good news because it draws the invaders more deeply into his trap.
Despite the Iraqi leader's broadcast, some western spokesmen persisted with the idea that Saddam is dead and hinted that his speech might have been recorded in advance. If so, the late Saddam Hussein had remarkable clairvoyant powers because he mentioned numerous current events.
Meanwhile, serious trouble continues in Basra, Nassiriya and other parts of southern Iraq, though this morning the BBC reported that "substantial numbers" of US forces are at last passing through Nassiriya.
Even in Umm Qasr, just over the border from Kuwait, resistance continues. Last Saturday, 30 Iraqi fighters were said to be holding out there; today they are said to number "only" 100.
Overnight, the British military announced that a soldier from the 1st Battalion of the Black Watch had been killed in action near al-Zubayr in southern Iraq. A sandstorm was also hampering US troops advancing on Baghdad.
In other developments, President Bush is expected to ask Congress today for $75bn (£48bn) towards the cost of the war.
An opinion poll in Britain shows a sudden surge in the number of people who approve of military action to remove Saddam Hussein. There are now 54% in favour - a 16-point increase over seven days. Those against have dropped from 38% to 30%.
Today's big scare story comes from American TV networks which claim, citing intelligence sources, that Iraqi troops could be authorised to use chemical weapons if other means of defending the city fail.
Yesterday's scare, an exclusive story in the Jerusalem Post - where Pentagon arch-hawk Richard Perle is a board member - told of the discovery of a suspected chemical weapons factory in southern Iraq. There is still no confirmation of the factory's purpose, and some experts have cast serious doubt on it.
With less than a week gone, predictions of a quick and clinical victory are looking less credible than they did in the first couple of days. Wars are rarely that easy, and it is difficult to know what the real (but private) expectations of General Franks and the other commanders were.
But they do seem to have been surprised by the levels of resistance in the south, where Saddam's cousin, "Chemical Ali", is in charge.
There is also disappointment that the Shia population of the south have not risen up against the Ba'athist regime. A Shia opposition official, interviewed on the radio last night, explained this very simply.
In 1991, he said, the Americans encouraged them to rebel against Saddam, but were then betrayed by the US. They are not going to be fooled a second time and will therefore keep their heads down until they are sure who is winning.
More generally, though there is ample evidence of popular hatred for Saddam and his regime, there are few signs of enthusiasm for the American and British invaders either. The following quote, sent in by a reader, may be relevant: "Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators. Your wealth has been stripped of you by unjust men ... The people of Baghdad shall flourish under institutions which are in consonance with their sacred laws."
The words were uttered by General F S Maude, commander of British forces in Iraq ... and the year was 1917.
After a series of setbacks, and with the advance on Baghdad delayed by sandstorms, the invasion forces were badly in need of some positive developments yesterday.
The first success of the day - which came just at the right moment for prime-time television news in the UK - was a claim by the British military that a "popular uprising" against Saddam Hussein's regime had broken out in Basra.
British forces then weighed in with artillery support for the rebelling Shia population and a 2,000-lb bomb was dropped on the Ba'ath party headquarters, according to reports. The British deputy commander, Major-General Peter Wall, hailed the uprising as "just the sort of encouraging indication we have been looking for".
At present, very little news is coming out of Basra from independent sources, so it is difficult to be sure what is really happening. Some British versions have been much more cautious, describing the uprising as "nascent", while al-Jazeera's reporter inside the city said there was no sign of any uprising at all.
Until now, Shia organisations in southern Iraq have been very wary of getting involved in the war. In 1991, the US encouraged them to rebel but then abandoned them to their fate at the hands of Saddam's merciless men.
The US 7th Cavalry also claimed success yesterday in a battle against Iraqi foot-soldiers near Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad. News of this no-contest victory, in which two American tanks and an armoured troop carrier were damaged, came just at the right moment for prime-time TV in the United States. Between 150 and 500 Iraqis are believed to have died.
Two British soldiers were killed and two more critically injured when one Challenger tank opened fire on another in a "misdirected attack" on Monday, it was announced yesterday. It is the second time during this war that "friendly fire" has claimed British lives, and an investigation is under way.
Overnight, bombing continued in Baghdad, apparently aimed at Iraqi state television. Broadcasts were interrupted briefly but resumed with a weaker signal - presumably from a back-up transmitter.
In Nassiriya yesterday, US officers said they had found 3,000 chemical protection suits and large quantities of nerve gas antidote at a hospital which had been used as a base by Iraqi soldiers fighting the invasion. This is being interpreted as evidence that Iraq may be prepared to use chemical weapons.
However, the "antidote" - atropine - also has routine medical uses for treating heart patients and some respiratory conditions.
President George Bush formally asked Congress yesterday for almost $75bn (£48bn) to fund the war. He had delayed making the request until the invasion got under way, for fear of objections.
But far from balking at the cost, some congressmen seemed eager to provide more than he asked for. The figures suggest the US has budgeted for a war that will last one month.
The United Nations, meanwhile, announced that it will appeal for $1bn to save Iraq from a humanitarian disaster. Sixty per cent of Iraqis depend entirely on the UN's food rations and, according to the World Food Programme, only five weeks' supplies are left.
A subsidiary of Halliburton, vice-president Dick Cheney's old company, has been awarded a contract by the US army to put out fires and repair damaged infrastructure in the Iraqi oil industry. The value of the deal has not been officially disclosed, but is said to be in the region of $1bn.
Mr Cheney was chief executive of Halliburton until 2000 but gave up his stake in the company on becoming US vice-president. He reportedly still gets about $1m a year "compensation" from the company.
The British prime minister, Tony Blair, is due to meet President Bush in the US today. Apart from reviewing progress of the war, the two leaders are expected to discuss ways of patching up relations between the US and Europe once the war is over.
The UN security council has also scheduled an emergency meeting which is due to begin later today, possibly continuing until tomorrow. This is in response to calls from Arab and non-aligned countries for an end to the war and the withdrawal of US-led troops. It is unclear whether there will be any attempt to table a resolution to this effect - though such a move would almost certainly be vetoed by the US and Britain.
More than 1,000 members of the US 173rd Airborne Brigade landed in Kurdish-held northern Iraq overnight, with the aim of securing an airfield that can be used by cargo planes to land tanks and other equipment - thus opening up a northern front in the war.
The US military had originally hoped to send troops in over land, but failed to reach an agreement with Turkey, and so has resorted to air drops as a fall-back plan.
Activity on the northern front may divert some attention from southern Iraq, where the invasion forces are making slow headway. There are murmurings from some military experts that more troops are needed - which is just what the politicians don't want to hear.
At least 14 Iraqis were killed yesterday and dozens injured in a crowded marketplace in the Shaab district of northern Baghdad - apparently the result of American bombing.
The US military has so far given four different explanations: that one of its precision missiles might have gone astray; that the attack was aimed at Iraqi anti-aircraft missiles "positioned less than 300ft from homes"; that an Iraqi anti-aircraft missile hit the market; that an accurately-aimed US missile was deflected by Iraqi ground fire.
The gruesome scenes in the marketplace figured prominently in al-Jazeera's war coverage throughout the day, though the Iraqi deaths only made the third item in CNN's early morning news and largely vanished from American television after that.
The confused explanations given by the US military also raise questions about the competence of their information machine. As a source of information it's rapidly proving untrustworthy and as a source of propaganda it's equally ineffective.
Centcom's increasingly fraught press briefings in Qatar seem designed to provide junk news for the pliant American media while reporters from the rest of the world demand real answers to real questions.
The mystery over the "popular uprising" in Basra, announced by Britain on Tuesday, continues. British forces say they are getting a lot of information from inside the besieged city but still cannot give a coherent account of what is going on. One theory is that the "uprising" is/was a quarrel between different Ba'athist elements.
About 120 Iraqi tanks and armoured vehicles reportedly left Basra last night, heading south-east towards the Faw peninsula, and came under attack from the invasion forces. It is unclear how many have been destroyed.
Another overnight report, that a huge armoured column of Republican Guards was heading south from Baghdad, has been denied by the US military.
The US is investigating reports that 37 Marines were injured by "friendly fire" near Nasiriya.
British officials say that two dead soldiers, whose bodies were shown on al-Jazeera television yesterday, are "probably" two Britons who went missing near al-Zubayr on Sunday.
The first British ship bringing humanitarian aid (200 tonnes of food, water and blankets) to Iraq has been unable to dock at Umm Qasr because of mines. It is expected to be delayed for 24 hours.
An opinion poll by the Pew Research Centre says the number of Americans who believe the war is going well has fallen from 71% to 38% between last Friday and Monday.
The US Fourth Infantry Division, originally destined for the northern front via Turkey, will shortly begin deploying to Kuwait, though it will not be ready to fight for another two to three weeks - a sign, perhaps, that the war will not be over quickly.
George Bush and Tony Blair are meeting in Camp David today. An article in the Washington Post this morning pays glowing tribute to Mr Blair: "His stature is high, his agenda ambitious, his optimism seemingly boundless ... He even looks more robust - the wan, haunted demeanour of recent weeks as he fought off the flu and widespread popular opposition in Britain to war has been replaced with rosier cheeks and his old cherubic grin." Less reverentially, the visit gave rise to ribald jokes on a British TV show last night about the nature of the two men's "special relationship".
Amid admissions that Iraq has surprised the invasion forces with the strength of its resistance, and official predictions that the conflict will last longer than originally expected, there is news from Washington that Richard Perle, chief architect of the war, has resigned as chairman of the Pentagon's influential Defence Policy Board.
Mr Perle says he resigned to stop allegations about his business interests becoming a distraction from the "urgent challenge" of invading Iraq, but he apparently intends to stay on in a more minor role.
In 1996 Mr Perle, nicknamed the Prince of Darkness, was the main author of a report entitled "Clean Break" whose contents were revealed by the Guardian last September (Playing skittles with Saddam, September 3 2002). This set out a plan to protect Israel's strategic interests by reshaping the Middle East, starting with regime change in Iraq.
Last week, the Guardian disclosed Mr Perle's links to an intelligence-related computer firm that stands to profit from war with Iraq (Pentagon hawk linked to UK intelligence company, March 21 2003). Mr Perle has denied separate allegations published earlier this month in the New Yorker, and threatened to sue the magazine in Britain, where libel cases are much harder to defend than in the US.
According to a report to be published today by the US watchdog Center for Public Integrity, at least 10 out of 30 members of the Pentagon committee are executives or lobbyists with companies that have tens of billions of dollars' worth of contracts with the US defence department and other government agencies.
Britain's chief military officer in the Gulf, Air Marshal Brian Burridge, yesterday attacked American moves to hand over the running of Iraq's largest port to a company which has a history of bad industrial relations and has faced accusations of union-busting.
The firm, Stevedoring Services of American, has been awarded a £3m contract to manage Umm Qasr by the Bush administration. Britain argues that the port should be run by Iraqis once it has been made secure.
Another contract in Umm Qasr - for construction work - has gone to a subsidiary of Halliburton, Vice-President Dick Cheney's old firm.
Meanwhile, the arrival of the first ship carrying humanitarian aid to Umm Qasr has again been delayed because of the continuing risk from mines.
George Bush and Tony Blair ended their summit at Camp David yesterday with a joint press conference where they vowed to fight "for as long as it takes" to remove Saddam Hussein from power. But with growing perceptions in the Middle East that the invasion is aimed at conquering Iraq rather than liberating it, there is also a growing possibility that the removal of Saddam will not mark the end of the war.
From Camp David, Mr Blair went on to New York for talks with the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan. Discussions centred on plans for a new security council resolution to restart the oil-for-food programme on which 60% of Iraqis depend for their survival.
The bombing of Baghdad continued overnight and a BBC correspondent in the city said the explosions heard were among the most violent since the start of the war. Targets included an Iraqi communications centre which was hit by two 4,700-lb "bunker-busting" bombs, according to US officials.
Following the parachute landing by about 1,000 troops to secure an airfield in northern Iraq on Wednesday, US cargo planes have begun delivering military supplies there, along with 200 more troops.
One of the main difficulties facing the invasion forces almost everywhere in Iraq is distinguishing soldiers from civilians - and the Baghdad regime is clearly putting civilians at risk by deliberately confusing the picture.
A "pooled" (and apparently censored) report by a Reuters correspondent this morning describes an attack by US marines on a bus near Nassirya in which 20 Iraqis were killed. The dead were wearing some civilian clothing and were said to be carrying papers that identified them as members of the Republican Guard - though the report says that only two guns were found on the bus.
British and American rules of engagement normally require clear evidence that targets are armed and hostile before troops can open fire. But because of the Iraqi use of non-uniformed fighters, troops are finding themselves in the invidious position of having to make split-second judgments.
This bodes ill for any future attempt to capture Baghdad. The Iraqi defence minister, Sultan Hashem Ahmed, was quoted yesterday as saying the capital "cannot be taken as long as the citizens in it are still alive".
Iraq suffered another civilian tragedy and the invasion forces suffered another public relations disaster when an explosion in a crowded market area of Baghdad killed more than 50 people yesterday.
It was the second incident of its kind within two days. A similar blast killed 14 people in a marketplace on Wednesday.
In the midst of an almost round-the-clock blitz on the city, there were strong suspicions that this was another mis-aimed strike by an American missile.
Following Wednesday's explosion, US officials gave a range of conflicting explanations - including the suggestion that it was caused by an Iraqi anti-aircraft missile falling back to earth - but last night the Pentagon made no immediate comment on the latest incident.
Whatever the actual cause, the damage to the US in terms of public opinion has already been done and will not be easily undone. TV stations - particularly the Arab satellite channels - showed pictures of the victims throughout the day, reinforcing the impression that the US is a greater immediate threat than Saddam Hussein.
In a move that threatens to widen the conflict, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld yesterday issued a warning to two of Iraq's neighbours, Syria and Iran.
He claimed that "military supplies" had been crossing the border from Syria into Iraq - though the only item he specifically mentioned was night-vision goggles.
Mr Rumsfeld took care not to blame the Syrian government directly for the alleged trafficking but said the government would be held accountable for it.
He also complained about "activity" inside Iraq by the Iranian-based Badr Corps and said the Iranian government would be held responsible for that.
The American neo-conservatives regard war with Iraq as the first stage of their wider plan to reshape Israel's "strategic environment" by toppling various regimes in the Middle East.
During a visit to Israel last month, John Bolton, US undersecretary of state for arms control, discussed with prime minister Ariel Sharon which countries to "deal with" after Iraq. Syria and Iran emerged as the favourites.
Early this morning a missile caused damage in Souq Sharq, a shopping and leisure area on the seafront in Kuwait City. The missile is thought to have landed nearby in the sea.
Although damage was light and no serious casualties were reported, this appears to be the first time since the war began that an Iraqi missile - believed to be a Chinese-made Silkworm - has got through the protective cordon of Patriot batteries into the Kuwaiti capital.
One theory is that the missile was fired from the Faw peninsula in southern Iraq and skimmed low over the sea to evade Kuwait's radar system.
Also this morning, there is a report by Reuters - attributed to unnamed US officers - that an "operational pause" in the war lasting several days is being planned to allow for re-grouping and re-supply of the American forces around Baghdad. So far, US military officials have refused to comment on the report.
Meanwhile, British military officials say they have no evidence to back up claims that four or five British soldiers were kidnapped in Basra overnight.
Four American soldiers died yesterday near Najaf in the first suicide bombing of the war.
At a press conference afterwards, Iraq's vice-president, Taha Yassin Ramadan, named the bomber as Ali Jaafar al-Nuamani, a non-commissioned officer in the Iraqi army - and indicated that suicide bombings will now become "routine military policy".
He also repeated the threat to carry out attacks in the US and Britain: "We will use any means ... and we will follow the enemy into its land," the vice-president said.
In an article in the Sunday Mirror this morning, Britain's former foreign secretary, Robin Cook, denounces the invasion as "bloody and unnecessary", and calls for British troops to be brought home because of the risk of stoking up a "long-term legacy of hatred" for the west throughout the Arab and Muslim world.
Mr Cook, who earlier resigned from the government in protest, says President Bush and his defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, seem to have no idea what to do now that their hopes that Iraq would swiftly capitulate have proved unfounded.
In the US, Mr Rumsfeld is increasingly being blamed for the military quagmire. The latest issue of the New Yorker magazine accuses him of repeatedly rejecting advice from his advisers about the number of troops that would be needed.
He was so convinced that the Iraqi regime would fall apart that he insisted at least six times on sharply reducing the number of ground troops that the military planners wanted to send, the article says.
It also reveals that he overruled advice from the war commander, General Tommy Franks, to delay the invasion until troops who had been denied access through Turkey could be brought in by another route.
Mr Rumsfeld, who on Friday threatened to drag Syria and Iran into the war, is due to give interviews for the Fox and ABC television channels later today.
The bodies of the first British casualties arrived back in Britain yesterday, in coffins draped with the union flag.
According to the latest figures from Reuters, 23 Britons and 36 Americans have been killed so far, with a further 15 Americans missing. Most deaths have been the result of accidents or "friendly fire".
Overnight, the US said two more marines had been killed in accidents. One drowned when his vehicle rolled into a canal and the other was hit by a vehicle during a firefight with Iraqi soldiers.
On the Iraqi side, reliable casualty figures are difficult to obtain. The official estimate is 589 killed and 4,582 injured, but there are suspicions that many other deaths are not being disclosed by the Iraqi authorities because of the possible effect on morale.
Early this morning, British forces said they had captured five Iraqi officers and killed a colonel of the Republican Guard in village near Basra.
There are also reports of numerous "explosions" in Baghdad, Basra and Mosul. In southern Iraq, the US says it has placed troops from US army's 82nd Airborne Division placed near Nassiriya to protect supply lines. Meanwhile, artillery fire has been heard just north of Umm Qasr, the Iraqi port that has frequently but wrongly been declared secure.
In the north, Iraqi troops have been bombarding areas near Chamchamal, which they earlier gave up to a Kurdish advance. Kurdish militias, in turn, say they have pushed about 16 miles into Iraqi government territory north of Kirkuk.
Citing military strategists, the Observer reports this morning that a full-scale assault on the Republican Guards could begin within three days and last for 10 days. That would be followed by a battle for Baghdad itself, lasting up to five weeks - taking the campaign into mid-May.
The British government yesterday repeated its view that the war will end once Saddam Hussein is removed, but there are growing signs that this will only mark the end of the first phase. The next stage - making Iraq secure and establishing a stable government - is likely to be longer and more even more difficult.
"A prolonged stay of US and British forces may turn the country into a magnet for militants seeking a new jihad," according to a report by Associated Press, which says thousands of Muslim militants who say they are ready for martyrdom have flocked to Iraq since the war began.
It quotes a warning by John Voll, an Islamic affairs expert at Georgetown University in the United States: "If there is an American occupation, then Iraq will definitely move to the top of the list of jihad for the international network of Islamists."
American leaders moved swiftly yesterday to prevent the opening up of another front in the war - this time between Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, and his military chiefs.
The fuss is over an article published today in the New Yorkermagazine, which blames Mr Rumsfeld for many of the problems on the battlefield.
It says that in the planning stages of the war, the defence secretary and his team of civilian advisers repeatedly overruled the military experts because they thought they knew better.
Both Mr Rumsfeld and the war commander, General Tommy Franks, have denied the allegations - though it's an open secret that Mr Rumsfeld's style of management has annoyed many in the Pentagon.
Meanwhile, a sign of possible dissent in the British ranks is a report this morning that three unnamed soldiers from the 16 Air Assault Brigade have been sent home to face a court martial. They are understood to have complained about the way the war is being fought and the growing danger to civilians.
Following the first suicide bombing of the war, which killed four American soldiers on Saturday, Iraq has claimed for have more than 4,000 other volunteers ready to "martyr" themselves.
Although Saddam Hussein's regime is largely secular, religious militants throughout the region will probably make strenuous efforts over the coming months to "Islamise" the conflict - as happened during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The Palestinian Islamic Jihad group yesterday issued a statement announcing "the good news" that the first of its suicide bombers had arrived in Baghdad. Because of the extremely tight security in Israel, American and British troops in Iraq are likely to become an easier and more attractive target for the foreseeable future.
Angered by the TV images of civilian casualties and the feeble efforts of their own governments to prevent the war, Arabs from various countries have been volunteering to fight in Iraq. Reports mention 100 in Algeria and 50 in Egypt. In Lebanon, 20 volunteers are said to have already gone, while hundreds more have applied for Iraqi visas.
In northern Kuwait yesterday, 15 US soldiers were injured when a civilian charged at them in a pick-up truck just outside their base at Camp Udairi. The attacker, said to be an Egyptian migrant worker, was shot and critically injured.
Bombing in and around Baghdad continued relentlessly over the weekend - though the US says three-quarters of the attacks are aimed at weakening the Republican Guard, which has set up a protective cordon around the city. Early this morning the information ministry was in flames, having been targeted by Tomahawk cruise missiles to "reduce the command and control capabilities" of the Iraqi government, according to the US.
One of the ministry's main functions is to supervise foreign journalists working in Iraq, and normally they are required to file reports from the ministry building so that their activities can be monitored. Night-time scenes of Baghdad frequently shown by CNN came from a camera on the ministry's roof. Ahead of the attack, much of the media activity had been transferred to the Palestine Hotel.
Also this morning, there are reports of significant military activity around Nassiriya where, according to the BBC, 5,000 additional US troops, including special forces, are being sent in an effort to defeat continuing Iraqi resistance.
A dawn raid on Shatra, north of the Nassiriya, reportedly targeted Saddam's cousin, "Chemical Ali", and other senior Iraqi officials who are believed to be directing guerrilla attacks in the area.
In Nassiriya itself, the US says marines have found large quantities of gas masks and anti-nerve gas chemicals in an abandoned Iraqi camp. It is reported this morning that American troops are attempting to communicate with Iraqis in the field via a hand-held electronic box known as a Phrasealator, which was first tried out in Afghanistan.
The user points to one of 1,000 phrases on a menu - such as "come out with your hands up" - and the box squawks out the message in Pashtu, Dari, Urdu or, in this case, Arabic. Unfortunately, there is no way the Americans can understand what the Iraqis say in reply.
The invasion forces suffered another self-inflicted disaster in the battle for hearts and minds yesterday when soldiers from the US 3rd infantry division shot dead Iraqi seven women and children.
The incident occurred on Route 9, near Najaf, when a car carrying 13 women and children approached a checkpoint.
A US military spokesman says the soldiers motioned the vehicle to stop but their signals were ignored. However, according to the Washington Post, Captain Ronny Johnson, who was in charge of the checkpoint, blamed his own troops for ignoring orders to fire a warning shot.
"You just fucking killed a family because you didn't fire a warning shot soon enough!", he reportedly yelled at them.
In another checkpoint incident this morning, US forces say they killed an unarmed Iraqi driver outside Shatra.
Meanwhile it has emerged - as a result of detective work on the internet by a Guardian reader - that the explosion in a Baghdad market which killed more than 60 people last Friday was indeed caused by a cruise missile and not an Iraqi anti-aircraft rocket as the US has suggested.
A metal fragment found at the scene by British journalist Robert Fisk carried various markings, including "MFR 96214 09". This, our reader pointed out in an email, is a manufacturer's identification number known as a "cage code".
Cage codes can be looked up on the internet (www.gidm.dlis.dla.mil), and keying in the number 96214 traces the fragment back to a plant in McKinney, Texas, owned by the Raytheon Company.
Raytheon, whose headquarters are in Lexington, Massachusetts, aspires "to be the most admired defence and aerospace systems supplier through world-class people and technology", according to its website (www.raytheon.com). It makes a vast array of military equipment, including the AGM-129 cruise missile which is launched from B-52 bombers.
On the political front, two new quarrels have broken out. One centres on an attempt by the US to set up its own inspection team to find the alleged Iraqi weapons that United Nations inspectors did not find. The US appears unaware that such a project will have little credibility internationally and has pressed ahead, offering jobs to some of the UN inspectors.
The two chief UN inspectors, Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Authority, are reportedly furious. Dr Baradei, in remarks quoted by the BBC, insisted that the IAEA is the sole body with legal authority to verify any nuclear programmes in Iraq.
The other row concerns the new Pentagon-controlled Iraqi government that the US is establishing in Kuwait, with 23 ministries, each headed by an American and with four US-appointed Iraqi advisers.
Former US general Jay Garner, who was placed in overall charge of the "interim government", is annoyed by the efforts of Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defence secretary, to impose several controversial Iraqis as advisers in the government.
They include Ahmed Chalabi, head of the opposition Iraqi National Congress, who will be offered an advisory post in the finance ministry. Mr Chalabi was previously convicted in his absence of a multi-million dollar banking fraud in Jordan, though he denies the charges.
Mr Wolfowitz wants posts in other ministries to go to Mr Chalabi's nephew, Salem, and to three of his close associates, Tamara Daghestani, Goran Talebani and Aras Habib.
In an interview with the BBC yesterday, the British home secretary, David Blunkett, conceded that at present the invasion forces are "seen as villains", but he added:
"Once this is over and there is a free Iraq, with a democratic state ... the population as a whole will say that we want a free country, we want a state to live in where we can use our talents to the full."
The veteran American war correspondent, Peter Arnett, was sacked by NBC television yesterday for giving an interview to an Iraqi TV journalist in which he said the US had "misjudged the determination of the Iraqi forces". He was immediately offered a new job by a British newspaper, the Daily Mirror, which opposes the war.
Another war-related tragedy has occurred in Israel, where two elderly sisters were found dead - apparently suffocated - in a room that they had made airtight against a possible Iraqi chemical attack. Three others died in similar circumstances a fortnight ago.
On the ground in Iraq, battles continue in various locations. US forces "testing" the southern defences of Baghdad are reportedly fighting Republican Guards and other forces at Hindiya, some 50 miles from the capital.
Fighting has also erupted along the Euphrates river near ancient Babylon. US marines entered Shatra, 20 miles north of Nassiriya, after storming it with planes, tanks and helicopter gunships, and British Royal Marines clashed with Iraqi paramilitaries south of Basra.
Bombing of Baghdad continued overnight. Targets included the Iraqi national Olympic committee, which is run by Saddam Hussein's son, Uday.
At least one American soldier has been reported killed at Hindiya. A British soldier was also killed yesterday - the 26th since the war began. The defence ministry said he died "in the course of his duties" but gave no details.
The battle for Baghdad is about to begin in earnest, according to numerous reports this morning. The invasion forces are said to be "poised" and a massive ground offensive is "imminent".
US planners appear satisfied that continuous pounding by bombs has left the Republican Guard forces who protect the Iraqi capital sufficiently "degraded" (as the military put it) for the war to move on to the next phase. The important Medina division of the Republican Guard has been reduced to 50% of its fighting strength, the Pentagon says.
These moves also imply that the US has now secured its long supply lines which until recently seemed dangerously exposed.
It is still uncertain what will happen next. One scenario is that US forces will encircle the Baghdad - in effect besieging it. Another is that they will attempt to "punch through" the Republican Guard into the city itself.
A source at Centcom in Qatar is quoted as saying: "The next four days will be critical", so the picture should be much clearer by Saturday.
Amid the talk of capturing Baghdad, the Guardian reports that Pentagon experts have spent several months observing Israeli military operations in Palestinian cities, and have been studying videos of the assault on Jenin last year.
The article quotes a retired Israeli brigadier-general: "An urban environment is the great equaliser. You can't utilise your superiority in training and equipment. It's very easy for your adversary to hide and he usually knows the terrain much better than you."
Meanwhile, Iraq's government-in-waiting, which the US is setting up under great secrecy in Kuwait, is beset by political turmoil. Pentagon hardliners appear to be mounting a coup d'etat even before the government has any territory to control.
Apart from the attempt by Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defence secretary, to install Ahmed Chalabi, the failed Iraqi banker, and his cronies in advisory positions (since all the ministerial posts will be filled by Americans), the Pentagon has also ousted eight senior officials nominated by the US state department.
The Pentagon is seeking to replace the state department people, who include several ambassadors, with a bunch of neo-conservative hawks - most notably James Woolsey, a former CIA director.
One of the first concerns of this government-in-waiting is what to do about Iraqi banknotes which - horror of horrors - carry a picture of Saddam Hussein. Their solution, according to the Washington Post, is to scrap the Iraqi dinar and replace it with the US dollar. This will doubtless be viewed by all Iraqis as conclusive proof of America's imperialist intentions.
Several major Iraqi opposition groups, such as the Kurdistan Democratic party and the Iraqi National Accord, say they have been excluded from discussions about the interim government. A KDP official yesterday described the US plans as "not workable at all".
Although Britain has been consulted, it also seems unhappy about US plans to establish neo-colonial rule, even if it's supposed to be temporary. Prime minister Tony Blair yesterday called for a UN-sponsored conference of all groups to start reshaping Iraq's future.
Most reports so far suggest that the Pentagon's government will be very short-term - 90 days is the period mentioned - and that it will not start to take over until Saddam Hussein has been removed. However, if resistance in Baghdad is prolonged, it may assume control over the "liberated" parts of Iraq earlier. It is possible, therefore, that by the time Saddam falls, a new Pentagon regime will have become firmly entrenched on Iraqi soil.
Overnight, Centcom gave a highly unusual 3.30am briefing to announce that 19-year-old Private Jessica Lynch, who disappeared during an ambush near Nassiriyah last week, had been rescued from an Iraqi hospital.
Accounts of the extraordinary efforts that went into the search-and-rescue mission will undoubtedly serve as a moral-booster for US troops, and among the American public.
But this also contrasts with accounts of an American assault on a village near Babylon yesterday which killed dozens of civilians, according to the Iraqi authorities. Reuters correspondents on the spot have confirmed that the dead include at least nine children.
Note: An item in yesterday's Daily Briefing, which traced a metal fragment found in the bombed Iraqi market place to the Raytheon company in the US, has brought a flurry of emails from readers. Some say the markings on the fragment indicate that it was not from a cruise missile but from a HARM missile, which is also made by Raytheon. We're looking into it and hope to report back shortly.
Yesterday was the best day for US forces since the invasion began. They appear to have broken through Iraqi lines at two key points outside Baghdad.
In the south-west, the 3rd Infantry Division passed Karbala to come within 19 miles of the Iraqi capital. This was made possible by sealing off the exit routes from Karbala to forestall Iraqi resistance, rather than attempting a much longer operation to seize control of the city itself.
Further east, US forces reportedly "destroyed" the 12,000-strong Baghdad Division of the Republican Guard near Kut, seized a strategic bridge across the Tigris river, and moved up the Tigris valley to within 40 miles of the capital.
This morning, there are reports that two of Iraq's northernmost Republican Guard elements, the Adnan and Nebuchadnezzar divisions, are moving south towards Baghdad, apparently to assist other Iraqi forces which are under attack.
Further reports suggest that US forces are now within six miles of Baghdad, with Republican Guards advancing towards them as the long-anticipated ground battle for the capital approaches.
Overnight, for the first time during the war, Iraq shot down an American jet fighter - a naval F/A-18C Hornet operating from the USS Kitty Hawk. It has previously shot down several helicopters and unmanned drones.
An US helicopter went down in southern Iraq, though contradictory accounts of what happened have been given. Centcom says that the aircraft crashed, while the Pentagon says that it was shot down. At least six people on board are reported to have died.
These losses aside, developments around Baghdad mean that the US generally has a more positive story to tell than during the first two weeks of the war. However, that could shortly change again, depending on how it approaches the conquest of Baghdad.
The UK has also recovered its balance on the propaganda front. Essentially, the British line involves distancing itself from the more extreme elements of US policy. It is opposing US threats to Syria and Iran, proposing more UN involvement in a post-war Iraq, and differentiating British troops on the ground from the Americans by portraying them as approachable people who are doing the best to make friends with ordinary Iraqis.
The British army has begun publicising the "community relations" training given to every soldier, a relic of empire and the conflict in Northern Ireland. One interesting detail in this is that British troops in Iraq are forbidden to wear sunglasses, because that would prevent them from making normal eye contact with Iraqi citizens.
One British officer, interviewed on BBC radio last night, painted a glowing picture of the army's community relations, and said that he had never known a war in which some of his troops had not ended up marrying local women.
Iraq, meanwhile, scored a disastrous propaganda own goal yesterday by expelling one of al-Jazeera's two correspondents in Baghdad, and telling the other, an Iraqi citizen, that he could no longer report for the Qatar-based TV channel.
It appears that one of the reporters caused offence by trying to interview ordinary Iraqis without having a government "minder" present. Al-Jazeera reacted by saying that it would withdraw all its correspondents from Baghdad, Basra and Mosul (although it will continue to show film from those areas).
The Arabic channel had previously been accused by the US of acting as a mouthpiece for the Baghdad regime, but the Iraqi government's move is likely to enhance its reputation for independent reporting.
The most important battle of the war, over the future shape of Iraq, continues to rage behind the scenes in Washington and in a cluster of beachside villas in Kuwait, where the government-in-waiting is being assembled.
Moves to replace the Ba'athists with a Pentagon regime dominated by American neo-conservatives (nicknamed "Wolfie's people", as they are protegees of deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz) are being resisted by the state department, virtually the whole of the Iraqi opposition movement and, to some extent, Britain. Detailed articles on this theme appear this morning in the New York Times and the Financial Times.
So far, beside Jay Garner, the former US general who is notionally in charge of the future government, a number of names have emerged. They include:
· James Woolsey: the former CIA director is favoured by Mr Wolfowitz to head the information ministry, although the White House says he is unsuitable for that. He is likely to be offered an alternative post.
· Robert Reilly: former head of Voice of America radio. Currently working on post-Saddam broadcasts.
· Timothy Carney: former US ambassador to Sudan, scheduled to run the industry ministry. Mr Wolfowitz invited him to join, but has since turned against him.
· Barbara Bodine: former US ambassador to Yemen. She is due to become governor of Baghdad, and has started work in Kuwait, but is opposed by the Pentagon. While in Yemen, she alienated US hardliners by advocating a "sensitive" approach following the attack on the USS Cole.
· Robin Raphel: former US ambassador to Tunisia, scheduled to run the trade ministry. He is held back in Washington following opposition from the Pentagon.
· Kenton Keith: former US ambassador to Qatar, scheduled to run the foreign ministry. Also held back in Washington following opposition from the Pentagon.
· Buck Walters: retired US general, scheduled to take charge of southern Iraq.
· George Ward: former US Marine and ambassador to Namibia, due to take charge of coordinating humanitarian assistance.
· Lewis Lucke: veteran of USAID, due to take charge of reconstruction.
· Michael Mobbs: lawyer and close associate of Douglas Feith, the under secretary for defence policy; due to take charge of civil administration.
Saddam international airport, 10 miles to the west of central Baghdad, appears to be mainly in American hands today, after a fierce battle in which 320 Iraqi soldiers died, according to the US military.
However, an early morning report by a BBC correspondent said the Iraqis remain in full control of the road leading from the airport into the city and seem to be piling reinforcements into the area. CNN said loudspeakers in Baghdad were urging citizens to go to the airport and help to defend it.
Control of the airport would provide a huge boost to the invasion forces, allowing them to fly in supplies and equipment almost to the spot where they will be needed. Its civilian runway - 13,000 feet long - is capable of taking the biggest military aircraft. A military runway at the side - 8,800 feet long - is suitable for use by fighter jets.
The state of the runways and the air traffic control system is unclear, and following the overnight battle they may need repairs before they can be used.
Large parts of the Iraqi capital were still without electricity this morning, following a blackout at 8pm Baghdad time last night.
The US says it did not "intentionally" cause the power failure but there is speculation that a "blackout bomb" may have been used. This special weapon, previously used in Kosovo, causes electrical short-circuits but is controversial because it affects civilians by cutting off vital hospital equipment as well as pumped water and sewage systems.
It is thought that special forces may have used the blackout to enter Baghdad, either to attack key points of the city or simply to reconnoitre.
There is still great uncertainty in the media about likely American and Iraqi tactics in the main battle for Baghdad. It is possible that the US has not yet decided but will choose from a number of options on the basis of the latest intelligence from inside the Iraqi capital. It may even adopt different methods in different parts of the city and adjust the tactics as it proceeds.
Because of the risk of heavy casualties during the next phase of the war, it would be surprising if secret contacts were not under way to explore the possibility of an Iraqi surrender.
Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, set out his bottom line for Iraq's surrender at a press conference yesterday when he rejected any deal that would allow Saddam Hussein to flee the country but invited the Iraqi army to do business with him. "For the senior leadership, there is no way out. Their fate has been sealed by their actions," he said.
But he added: "The same is not true for the Iraqi armed forces. Iraqi officers and soldiers can still survive and help to rebuild a free Iraq if they do the right thing. They must now decide whether they want to share the fate of Saddam Hussein..."
So far, it has been widely assumed that the war will end with the fall of Saddam, but there are indications that it may not be as tidy as that. A thoughtful article in the Washington Post this morning (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A23898-2003Apr3.html) discusses the question of how and when the US might declare itself victorious.
The paper quotes James Steinberg, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, as saying: "There isn't going to be a single moment when we can say, 'Okay, good. This is done.' "
"Even if we got a formal surrender," he continued, "there would still be a lot of challenges going forward. So it's right to be modest about saying that you've 'won', just because certain phases of the battle are over."
One example of the difficulties that may be in store came yesterday from Nasiriya where a group of armed men attacked the main hospital after the departure of US marines who had been guarding it. Many patients fled, according to a BBC reporter on the spot.
Later, an Iraqi man was shot dead after reportedly refusing to hand over his vehicle to armed men. Looting and "civilian" violence is widespread in the town. Many citizens also seem terrified of talking to journalists.
Large-scale urban crime is quite rare in Arab societies and the events in Nasiriya may not be the result of normal criminal activity; there are hints that the trouble is caused by people connected to the Baathist regime.
Although the Iraqi military have largely been driven out of the areas "secured" by British and American forces, there is still the problem of the secret police and other Baathist agents who spy on the populace and apparently continue to intimidate them.
British forces stepped up their "hearts and minds" campaign yesterday with a soccer match in Khor al-Zubahir, near Basra, between the Royal Marines and an Iraqi team whose captain wore an Arsenal strip. The Iraqis won a resounding victory, by nine goals to three.
More controversially, a group of evangelical Christians are planning their own battle for hearts and minds in Iraq. The project, Samaritan's Purse, is funded by American churchgoers and will supposedly provide humanitarian aid to Iraqis without religious strings attached.
But it is led by the Reverend Franklin Graham, who delivered the invocation at President Bush's inauguration. Mr Graham once described Islam as a "wicked, violent" religion and said that Christianity and Islam were as "different as lightness and darkness".
Update: The US is investigating the possibility that a Hornet fighter jet apparently shot down by the Iraqis (Daily Briefing, April 3) could have been hit by "friendly fire" from a Patriot missile.
On the day the US celebrated the capture of Saddam International Airport by renaming it Baghdad International Airport, Saddam Hussein popped up on television to steal the show.
The allegedly dead Iraqi leader appeared twice, first with a speech to rally the people of Baghdad to the defence of their capital, and later in an astonishingly relaxed walkabout where he was greeted by cheers and kisses from citizens.
The propaganda message behind this, for any Iraqis who might be tempted to switch their allegiance, was that Saddam is still in charge.
There is little doubt that the man who delivered the TV speech in a distinctly rasping voice was indeed Saddam Hussein. Even if it was pre-recorded, it referred to the downing of an American Apache helicopter that occurred on March 23. This at least establishes beyond reasonable doubt that Saddam survived the impromptu $40m assassination attempt that opened the war.
The identity of the figure in the Baghdad walkabout is less certain. Use of a hand-held camera, together with the constant movement of the crowd, made it difficult to get a steady view of his face. The 12-minute film was certainly quite recent, since smoke from oil fires could be seen at times in the background and there were shots of minor bomb damage.
Some Iraqis say the man's body language, and even the shape of his paunch, were very distinctive - and if Iraqis are convinced by the authenticity of the film it will have served its political purpose.
This morning, up to eight US Abrams tanks are reported to have entered the southern outskirts of Baghdad on a reconnaissance mission. This is said to be the furthest they have yet ventured into the city.
Looking ahead to possible events over the next few days, an article in Slate magazine describes seven US battle options for Baghdad, apparently based on a secret study by the Pentagon. In typical military jargon, these options are named as "Isolation Siege", "Remote Strike (Rubbising)", "Ground Assault, Frontal", "Nodal Isolation", "Nodal Capture", "Segment and Capture" and "Softpoint Capture and Expansion".
The article explains what each of them means, although it does not indicate which of them the Pentagon prefers.
Also this morning, the US says it has captured the headquarters of the Republican Guard's important Medina division in Suwayrah, about 35 miles south east of Baghdad. First reports suggest that American forces were unopposed because the Iraqis had abandoned their posts.
In other developments overnight, the US says two marine pilots died when their Super Cobra attack helicopter crashed in central Iraq; and an American soldier, Sergeant Hasan Akbar, has been charged with the murder of two officers and 17 attempted murders in connection with the grenade attack at a US army camp in Kuwait on March 25.
A reporter for ABC News says seven civilians, including three children, died when US marines fired at two lorries that refused to stop at a checkpoint south of Baghdad.
It was announced yesterday that President George Bush and the British prime minister, Tony Blair, are to hold another of their "war summits" on Monday and Tuesday - this time in northern Ireland.
During the last 24 hours there has been some excited media coverage relating to Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, although there is no confirmation so far that any have been found by the invading forces.
At a press conference yesterday, the Iraq information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, speaking in Arabic, threatened "non-traditional action" at Baghdad airport and said it would take place overnight (though it appears not to have happened).
First reports translated the phrase as "non-conventional" - implying an intention to use weapons of mass destruction. The minister made clear this was not what he had in mind. Later reports amended the translation to "unconventional". Yesterday, US forces reportedly discovered quantities of "white powder" and "clear liquid". The subliminal message here was that the powder might be anthrax, although preliminary tests suggest it was some kind of explosive, according to the US.
Another report mentioned the discovery of cyanide in river water, but a simple internet search shows that cyanide compounds are often found in industrial waste water. There is also cyanide in various foods, such as almonds, and in cigarette smoke.
Five people, including three American special forces troops, died yesterday when a car blew up at a checkpoint in central Iraq. The assumption is that it was another suicide attack (the second since the invasion began), but doubts were raised when Centcom said a pregnant woman - who was among those killed - stepped out of the car "screaming in fear" just before the explosion.
There are also doubts about the earlier "suicide" bombing on March 29. Western intelligence sources now say the driver of the taxi involved may have had no idea he was carrying a bomb. Forensic evidence indicates the blast could have been triggered by remote control, they say.
As with so many events in this war, it is becoming increasingly difficult to know which version is true.
With 25 Abrams tanks and 12 Bradley armoured vehicles, US forces made a three-hour tour through south-western Baghdad yesterday, reportedly killing up to 1,000 Iraqis and destroying 100 vehicles.
The purpose of the incursion was partly psychological and partly to test the strength of the city's internal defences. The route taken, which for a time cut off the Yarmuk district from the rest of the city, may indicate that the US favours the "segment and capture" option for conquering Baghdad (Daily briefing, April 4). The aim of this would be to pick off one district of the city at a time, starting with those that are least defended and most likely to welcome the Americans.
Inside Baghdad, defenders armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades have been reported taking up positions at road junctions. The sinister black-clad Fedayeen militia, controlled by Saddam Hussein's son, Uday, have been seen on the streets for the first time since the war began.
Iraq television yesterday showed what it said was more footage of President Saddam - laughing and chatting with Uday, his younger son, Qusay, senior aides and commanders. It was unclear when the film was made.
The US says it now has 7,000 troops positioned at Baghdad airport and the next priority there is for military engineers to clear the debris, make repairs and prepare the runway for use. The US also says it has begun 24-hour surveillance of Baghdad from the air.
As an indication of the huge logistics operation that is taking place, AP reports that 2,500 or more supply vehicles travel north from Kuwait every day. Troops in the field drink 1.5m litres of water and eat 330,000 plastic-wrapped meals daily. A total of 65m gallons of fuel is also moving along the road, according to US central command.
Early this morning Iraqi television announced a night-time travel ban for entering and leaving Baghdad. This may be a safety measure because of shelling on the outskirts, but it followed reports yesterday that thousands of civilians were fleeing the city.
In northern Iraq, Kurdish forces are said to be continuing their advance towards Mosul and Kirkuk helped by US air cover.
The Kurds would like to capture both cities, but at some point soon the Americans may have to halt their advance, for fear of angering Turkey which does not want the Kurds to become too powerful.
There are suggestions this morning that the new Pentagon-run government of Iraq may start operating this week - possibly as early as Tuesday - in Umm Qasr, just across the border from Kuwait where it is currently getting ready for work in a cluster of seaside villas.
There is a growing debate in the US media about the secretive way the government is being assembled, about the sidelining of the Iraqi opposition and the UN, and the efforts by extreme neo-conservative elements in the Pentagon to seize control.
This issue is likely to be high on the agenda when the British prime minister, Tony Blair, meets the US president, George Bush, for a "war summit" in northern Ireland tomorrow.
Mr Blair reportedly wants extensive UN involvement but the Bush administration is divided. Mr Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, says that a UN role is not under discussion, while the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, says discussions have already begun.
The arguments are explored further by the Washington Post this morning.
The same paper also carries an article by two members of the US Senate foreign relations committee - Joseph Biden (Democrat) and Chuck Hagel (Republican) - calling for a sensitive and internationalist approach to "winning the peace" in Iraq.
US forces stormed into central Baghdad early today, taking over Saddam Hussein's newest presidential palace on the banks of Tigris river. Troops were also seen close to the information ministry and the Rashid Hotel.
An officer from the US Third Infantry Division told Fox News that troops had carried an American flag into the palace. "Saddam Hussein says he owns Baghdad. We own Baghdad. We own his palaces, we own downtown," the officer said.
However, military sources emphasised that they were not yet attempting to capture the city, saying that the operation was intended to be "a dramatic show of force" to demonstrate that US troops could enter Baghdad anywhere, at any time.
Nevertheless, this morning's incursion, with more than 70 tanks and 60 armoured vehicles, was by far the largest so far. It was also the first time that US forces have entered the city centre.
A number of Iraqi tanks positioned in the city are said to have been destroyed from the air. Iraqi resistance on the ground seems to have been relatively weak, although that does not necessarily mean that the number of Iraqi casualties was small.
Iraqi hospitals lost count of casualties during the three-hour US incursion on Saturday, but the number of dead is thought to be in the hundreds, and could possibly be more than 1,000.
In the south, British forces say that they have gained control of most of Basra, Iraq's second city, although "isolated pockets" of resistance are continuing.
The breakthrough followed the destruction of the Ba'ath party headquarters in the city, and a similar attack on Saturday on the headquarters of Saddam's cousin, Ali Hassan Majid, known as Chemical Ali, who had been placed in charge of defending southern Iraq. This morning, British officials said that Chemical Ali had been killed.
In the worst case of "friendly fire" since the invasion began, a US warplane in northern Iraq yesterday attacked a Kurdish convoy travelling with US special forces. At least 18 people were killed, including Wajid Barzani, brother of the Kurdistan Democratic party's leader, and Kamaran Mohammed, a BBC translator.
John Simpson, the BBC's world affairs editor, survived with a piece of shrapnel in his flak jacket, and other members of the BBC team suffered minor injuries.
Despite all the Iraqi setbacks, information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf continues his bravura performances from behind a forest of microphones at Baghdad's Palestine Hotel.
Wearing his customary black beret, and with rimless spectacles perched on his nose, he gave some astonishingly detailed and authoritative-sounding accounts of Iraqi military successes yesterday, including the news that US forces at Baghdad airport have been butchered and driven out.
This morning, he was on exceptionally good form. "Their infidels are committing suicide by the hundreds on the gates of Baghdad," he said. "Be assured, Baghdad is safe, protected."
During the war, Mr al-Sahaf has emerged as the only truly entertaining character in the Iraqi regime. It is to be hoped that he survives, because he really ought to be given his own TV show somewhere.
He will be a hard act to follow, but James Woolsey, the man favoured by the Pentagon to take over the Iraqi information ministry, is already shaping up to the job, despite objections from the White House.
Mr Woolsey, a former CIA director, spoke at a university teach-in in Los Angeles last week, where he said that the US is now engaged in world war four, and that it could continue for years. World war three, in case anyone missed it, was the cold war with the Soviet Union, he said.
"This fourth world war, I think, will last considerably longer than either world wars one or two did for us," said Mr Woolsey, adding: "Hopefully not the full four-plus decades of the cold war."
"As we move toward a new Middle East, over the years and, I think, over the decades to come ... we will make a lot of people very nervous. Our response should be 'Good!' "
Addressing the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, and the leaders of Saudi Arabia, he said, "We want you nervous. We want you to realise now, for the fourth time in 100 years, this country and its allies are on the march and that we are on the side of those whom you - the Mubaraks, the Saudi Royal family - most fear: we're on the side of your own people."
Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy US defence secretary and a leading hawk, waded into arguments about the post-Saddam rule of Iraq yesterday when he suggested that the new Pentagon-controlled regime would last for more than six months. Officially, it is supposed to last for no more than 90 days.
Mr Wolfowitz also cast doubt on the likelihood of significant UN involvement in the transition. This issue is almost certain to be raised by the British prime minister, Tony Blair, when he meets President Bush in northern Ireland later today.
Meanwhile, Ahmed Chalabi, the controversial head of the opposition Iraqi National Congress, disappeared from the Kurdish area of northern Iraq over the weekend. He is reported to have been flown by, the US, to Nassiriya, in the south.
According to Mr Chalabi, hundreds of "soldiers" from the Iraqi National Congress have now joined the campaign to get rid of Saddam Hussein, and will fight alongside coalition forces in southern and central Iraq.
"We are proud to contribute our forces to Operation Iraqi Freedom. The war of national liberation, which Iraqis have waged for 30 years, is nearing its end," he said.
This is rather less grand than it sounds. Mr Chalabi's men are actually under US control and belong to the Free Iraqi Forces, a group of up to 3,000 volunteers who are mainly Iraqi exiles or Americans of Iraqi origin. They have been trained by the US for liaison with Iraqi civilians and aid organisations rather than fighting, although they have also learned to use small arms for self-defence.
There is new speculation about the fate of Saddam Hussein today after the US destroyed a house in Baghdad in an attempt to assassinate him.
A single B-1 warplane dropped four 2,000lb bombs on the house, in the middle-class Mansour district of the city, yesterday afternoon but the purpose of the mission was not revealed by the Pentagon until 12 hours later.
One of the bunker-busting bombs left a crater 30ft deep and 50ft wide in the road. Witnesses said two houses were flattened and four other buildings badly damaged. Various reports put the number of Iraqi dead at between eight and 16.
US officials say they believe Saddam Hussein and his sons, Qusay and Uday, were in the building at the time. They say the attack was the result of intelligence from three "credible" sources, including a listening device planted in the building. A voice similar to that of Saddam had allegedly been heard discussing routes out of the city.
During the 1991 Gulf war, the Iraqi leader spent much of his time in ordinary houses, believing them to be less prone to attack than his palaces and bunkers.
A group of American soldiers have spent their first night in central Baghdad, as uninvited guests at one of the presidential palaces. Pictures from inside the palace, showing a mixture of opulence and destruction, figure strongly in the newspapers this morning. Predictably, one of the marble-clad bathrooms was found to have gold taps.
Renewed fighting was reported from around the palace early today, though it was unclear whether the building had come under attack from Iraqi forces or whether the Americans were trying to extend their area of control.
Elsewhere in Baghdad, troops and some civilians have been removing the most visible symbols of Saddam's power. In Zawra Park, according to CNN, a 40ft statue of the Iraqi leader mounted on horseback crashed to the ground when American soldiers shot the legs off.
The information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, who is now Iraq's most celebrated TV personality, gave another cheerful press conference from the roof of the Palestine Hotel yesterday, announcing that "Baghdad is safe" as smoke wafted across the sky behind him and Iraqi troops on the opposite bank of the river ran for cover.
Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross has warned that hospitals in Baghdad are being overwhelmed by new patients, are running out of medicine and are short of water and electricity.
An ICRC spokesman said surgeons at al-Kindi hospital in north-eastern Baghdad "have been working round the clock for the past two days and most are exhausted. Conditions are terrible".
In Basra, British troops were seen on television yesterday patrolling streets of the old city on foot - a sign that the security situation is improving. But there is also extensive looting of official buildings (including a further education college) for furniture, computers, electrical items and even floorboards. A BBC correspondent reported seeing a grand piano stolen from a hotel being wheeled along the street.
British forces say their priority in Basra at the moment is to deal with "pockets" of military resistance rather than to maintain civilian law and order.
US forces said yesterday that they may have found stores of the nerve agent sarin and other biological and chemical weapons at a camp near Hindiyah in central Iraq. Throughout the war the US has been seeking proof of its claim that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.
Several "finds" have been reported but none has been confirmed. Tests on material in the latest discovery are expected to take several days.
President George Bush and the British prime minister, Tony Blair, are continuing their talks in northern Ireland today. A key issue is differences of opinion between the two leaders on the rebuilding and future government of Iraq.
Jay Garner, the former US general who is setting up the "transitional" Pentagon-controlled government of Iraq from his base in Kuwait, was due to give a press conference yesterday but it was cancelled at the last minute. No reason was given, though continued behind-the-scenes wrangling is the most likely explanation.
The Guardian reports today that Britain hopes to appoint Major General Tim Cross, a logistics expert, as Mr Garner's deputy. General Cross, who previously organised refugee camps in Macedonia and Kosovo, has been coordinating humanitarian aid to the port of Umm Qasr in southern Iraq.
Al-Jazeera television channel said this morning that its Baghdad office had been hit by American bombing. One cameraman was injured and another member of the team is missing, the station said.
The Kabul office of the Qatar-based channel, which has often incurred the wrath of the US, was hit by American "smart" bombs during the war in Afghanistan. Before the invasion of Iraq began, al-Jazeera said it would be supplying the geographical coordinates of its Baghdad office to the US military, so there would be no excuse this time for hitting it by mistake.
Al-Jazeera's new English-language website has also been shut down several times in the past fortnight by cyber attacks that some believe are officially organised.
More details have emerged of American propaganda broadcasting to Iraq, some of which comes from aircraft operating out of a small US base known as Camp Snoopy, at Doha airport in Qatar. Mika Makelainen, a Finnish radio enthusiast, has published a full report on his website.
Chaos and jubilation broke out in Baghdad this morning amid signs that Saddam Hussein's regime has lost control of the city.
Television showed scenes of citizens attacking images of the Iraqi leader, while others cheerfully made off with whatever they could grab from shops and other buildings.
Overnight, US marines fanned out through Saddam city, the Shia suburb, where they were greeted by smiling Iraqis.
Some feeble resistance was reported in the city centre, but the people of Baghdad had clearly decided Saddam cannot threaten them again.
Reuters reported that in one Baghdad street a white-haired man used his shoe to beat a picture of the fallen president while a younger man spat on the portrait.
"Come see, this is freedom ... this is the criminal, this is the infidel," he said. "This is the destiny of every traitor ... he killed millions of us. Oh people this is freedom."
Elsewhere, people emerged from buildings with looted electronic equipment, furniture, clocks, and even bunches of flowers. Some loaded them into cars and drove off.
Near the Palestine hotel about two dozen Arab volunteers, who had come to help defend Baghdad from the US-led invasion, pleaded desperately with taxi drivers to take them back to Syria.
In Qatar, however, a US military spokesman cautioned that it was too early to say the war was over. "I think it's premature to talk about the end of this operation yet," Captain Frank Thorp said.
"There may be many more fierce fighting days in front of us as coalition forces continue to move within Baghdad and within the country."
He added that the half of the country north of Baghdad had not yet been occupied by the US-led forces - including Saddam's home town, Tikrit, 110 miles north of the capital.
The apparent collapse of the regime followed an attempt to assassinate Saddam Hussein on Monday, when a building in the Mansour district of Baghdad was hit by four 2,000lb bombs. The building is said to have incorporated a restaurant with a secret bunker at the back.
However, several reports citing British intelligences sources say the Iraqi leader probably survived.
Some 40 Iraqi officials are believed to have been meeting Saddam and his two sons in the building, though they may have left a few minutes before the attack.
Yesterday, American forces launched two separate attacks on international media centres in Baghdad, killing three journalists.
Amnesty International and the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists have both called for an investigation.
In one attack, an American tank fired a shell at the 15th floor of the Palestine hotel, where most of the "non-embedded" journalists in the Iraqi capital are staying.
Central command in Qatar initially said there had been "significant enemy fire" from the hotel and "consistent with the inherent right of self-defence, coalition forces returned fire".
Numerous journalists on the spot dismissed centcom's claim as untrue and said there had been no firing from the hotel.
Centcom spokesman Vincent Brooks also implied the hotel was a legitimate target by saying it was used for "other regime purposes" - an apparent reference to press conferences given in the hotel by the Iraqi information minister.
Earlier in the day, two bombs hit the offices of al-Jazeera television during an American air raid. Abu Dhabi television nearby, whose identity is spelt out in large letters on the roof, also came under fire.
Al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi are the only international TV stations with a permanent presence in Iraq. Al-Jazeera had previously sent the georgaphical coordinates of its office to the Pentagon in the hope of avoiding an American attack similar to the one that destroyed its office in Kabul during the Afghan war - but apparently to no avail.
Centcom claimed that US forces had come under fire from al-Jazeera's building.
Although media organisations do not claim special protection during wars, these well-publicised attacks highlight a more general concern about the invasion forces' attitude towards civilians, especially in Baghdad.
Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the opposition Iraqi National Congress, has allegedly received an enthusiastic welcome in southern Iraq.
The controversial Mr Chalabi, who wants to be prime minister, was flown to Nassiriya by the US military on Sunday, despite objections from the CIA and state department that he is not a credible leader.
His spokesman, Francis Brooke, told Reuters yesterday: "We have been receiving delegation upon delegation [of local Iraqis]. We don't have time to meet them all. We are inundated."
But the US is reportedly annoyed by some freelance military activity from Abu Hatem Mohammed Ali, a guerilla leader associated with the INC.
Abu Hatem, along with several thousand armed men, is said to have "captured" the headquarters of Amara governorate, 230 miles southeast of Baghdad, without American support.
According to Reuters, he then left the building when the CIA threatened to have it bombed if he stayed.
Tony Blair - his eyes flashing like an American evangelist - and President Bush - his eyes suggesting it was well past his bedtime - concluded their two-day meeting in northern Ireland yesterday.
Mr Blair's main task was to persuade Mr Bush to accept more UN involvement in postwar Iraq. (Britain, of course, always opposed any UN involvement in the northern Ireland conflict.)
The outcome was a joint statement that the UN has a "vital role" to play in the reconstruction of Iraq.
This was slightly reminiscent of the way British governments tell nurses, firefighters, roadsweepers, etc, that they are playing a vital role but, sorry, they can't have any more money just at the moment.
Someone produced a sledgehammer, and Iraqis took it in turns to hack at the base of the giant statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.
They were making reasonable progress, and might well have toppled it after a few hours, but that would have been too late for primetime TV. The Americans were getting impatient, and their armoured vehicle lumbered up the podium steps with the elegance of a sexually aroused hippopotamus.
Removing this visible sign of a quarter-century of dictatorship from Baghdad yesterday was a highly symbolic act, but so was the manner of its removal: a metaphor for the ongoing debate about who will really be in charge of the new political order.
When it came to toppling Saddam's statue, the Iraqis were soon elbowed out of the way.
US armoured vehicles are like Swiss army knives, fitted with gadgets that are useful in all kinds of predicaments, so long as you can find the right one in a hurry. This particular armoured vehicle had a device that seemed tailor-made for removing colossal statues of deposed presidents.
A jib with a hook and chain on the end slowly extended up to Saddam's chest. A soldier climbed up the jib, hooked the chain around Saddam's neck, and produced a US flag, which he draped over the Iraqi leader's head.
There was some applause from the Iraqi crowd, but an Iraqi commentator on the BBC was aghast, and you could almost hear the shouts from Centcom's PR department in Qatar: "Get that flag down, now!"
This was exactly the sort of triumphalism that had caused so much trouble when troops hoisted the stars and stripes over Umm Qasr in the early days of the war: completely off-message. It's supposed to be a war of liberation, not of conquest.
The US flag duly came down and an Iraqi flag appeared, miraculously, from the crowd. A soldier draped it, rather grudgingly, around Saddam's neck, and then that, too, was removed.
Finally, the crowd was ushered back, the armoured vehicle slowly reversed and the chain tightened. With more grace than he ever displayed in power, Saddam Hussein made his final bow.
In Britain, we call this sort of thing criminal damage, and you can get three months in jail for it, as 37-year-old Paul Kelleher discovered recently when he beheaded a marble effigy of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Poor Mr Kelleher: wrong time, wrong place, wrong statue.
There are no statues of Ahmed Chalabi in Iraq just yet, but it is probably only a matter of time. With attention focused on Baghdad, the controversial would-be prime minister has been up to more mischief in Nassiriya, where the Pentagon hawks helped him to set up a base last weekend.
Mr Chalabi plans to convene a meeting of Iraqi opposition figures in Nassiriya on Saturday, viewed by the US state department as an attempt to organise his own "coronation".
Yesterday, state department officials moved quickly to undermine Mr Chalabi's efforts by saying that a joint meeting of "liberated Iraqis" and opposition members from outside Iraq will be held soon, although the date and location have yet to be set. "It will be our meeting and our guest list, not Chalabi's," a Bush administration official said.
Britain has also pre-empted Mr Chalabi (and perhaps the Pentagon, too) by appointing an unnamed tribal sheikh to run Basra province. Sketchy information about this was given by Colonel Chris Vernon, spokesman for the British forces, at a press briefing on Tuesday.
One journalist at the briefing asked how the sheikh was chosen: was he simply the first Iraqi to volunteer? Yes, said Colonel Vernon, although the British had been aware of his name beforehand.
The sheikh had been given the job after a two-hour interview with a divisional commander, and was "very pleased" with the arrangements proposed by the British. An Arab journalist then suggested that the sheikh, as a tribal leader, was likely to promote members of his own tribe to key posts.
Colonel Vernon seemed surprised by this, and agreed that Britain would have to keep an eye on the situation.
An article in the New York Times quotes a doctor at Basra General Hospital as saying: "All the sheikhs in Basra were friends with Saddam ... All the time, Saddam gave money to them, and they watched as he would cut someone's ear who did not join the military, or cut off someone's tongue who spoke out against the military."
The doctor added that he did not know which sheikh the British had in mind, but said that it didn't really matter. "All the sheikhs and tribal leaders are bad," he said.
Fighting broke out in Baghdad again this morning. Some of it centred on a mosque, where Saddam was rumoured to be hiding. Loud blasts were also reported from the city's outskirts, although their cause was not known. In the north, B-52 bombers were reportedly pounding an Iraqi army division near Kirkuk.
The US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, again threatened to escalate the Middle East conflict last night when he accused Iraq's neighbour, Syria, of helping senior members of the Baghdad regime to escape. The US was getting "scraps of evidence" to this effect, Mr Rumsfeld added.
He said there was also evidence that Syrians (referred to by the Pentagon as "jihadists") were moving into Iraq with approval from the Syrian government.
Following 24 hours of victory celebrations in Baghdad, there are fears today that the war, far from ending, could simply be moving into a far more intractable low-intensity phase in which bunker-busting bombs and other hi-tech weapons are of little use.
Yesterday, a particularly bad sign was the killing, in Iraq's holiest Shia mosque, of Abdul Majid al-Khoei, a US-backed cleric who had been living in exile in London until last week. It is unclear whether his death was the work of Saddam Hussein loyalists or a rival Shia group but, either way, the implications are alarming.
Mr al-Khoei was the son of Ayatollah Sayed al-Qasim al-Khoei, the leader of much of the Shia world until 1992 when he died, under house arrest, in Najaf.
The importance of his murder may be difficult to appreciate in countries in which religious leaders carry little political weight, but the closest British parallel is probably with Thomas Becket, the Archishop of Canterbury who, 833 years ago, was assassinated for supporting the authority of the Pope over King Henry II.
There was also another suicide bombing last night, when a man wearing an explosives-packed vest attacked a US checkpoint in Saddam City, the Shia suburb of Baghdad. Conflicting reports of casualties ranged from four US marines wounded to several dead.
Overnight, Iraqi gunmen, apparently from Shia slums in eastern Baghdad, fought a fierce hour-long battle with Fedayeen paramilitaries loyal to Saddam, according to US military sources and a Reuters news agency report.
So far, there has been no serious effort to stop the looting in Baghdad. US officials expect it to fizzle out naturally when there is nothing left to loot, although reports that Iraqis have even been stripping electrical wiring from buildings suggest that it may continue for some time.
If the experience in Basra is anything to judge by, this spontaneous crimewave could be followed by a more organised phase as armed gangs move in. Before the war, US and British planners had hoped that enough of Iraq's administration and security forces would be left intact to keep the country running but, in key places, they have either been destroyed or gone underground.
This should be less of a problem in the north, where the Kurds have been governing themselves for years, and are well organised. Elsewhere, the situation in smaller Iraqi towns which have not been touched by the war is largely unknown, and may be salvageable.
However, in areas such as Baghdad, in which all government has evaporated, there are now three basic choices:
1. Restoration of Ba'athists from the middle and lower ranks, assuming that they can be found and are willing to serve. This carries the risk of reinstating old patterns of misrule and corruption.
2. The development of local fiefdoms based around tribal or religious figures who are capable of maintaining order, but may turn out to be no less tyrannical than the previous regime.
3. Rebuilding the system from scratch, which would take months of recruitment and training.
All these factors point to the need for a prolonged US and British presence, which opponents will characterise as "occupation", as the Syrian government did yesterday.
Attacks by mujahideen, and possibly underground Ba'athists, will seek to push the US and British towards repressive measures in order to justify the term "occupation" and encourage others to join the struggle against it.
The model here is the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 80s, and the resistance to it. This, in the eyes of Islamists, not only led to the creation of al-Qaida, but also brought about the collapse of a superpower. The strategy is clear, although it's much too early to judge whether it has any chance of succeeding in Iraq.
George Bush and Tony Blair both gave speeches (dubbed into Arabic) on the new Towards Freedom TV station yesterday although, with no electricity in most of Baghdad, it is doubtful whether many people could have watched it.
Mr Blair promised to see the war through to the end. Mr Bush said that the US would respect Iraq's "great religious traditions, whose principles of equality and compassion are essential to Iraq's future".
In northern Iraq early today, US and Kurdish forces reportedly captured Mosul, Iraq's third city, without a fight. Kurdish paramilitaries have promised to hand over the important oil city of Kirkuk to US troops later today.
Kirkuk, the traditional capital of the Kurds, was taken by a mixture of Kurdish guerrillas and US special forces yesterday, but neighbouring Turkey, fearful of increased Kurdish power, has been insisting that the Kurds must not be allowed to keep it.
There is growing debate on the internet about the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad, and the extent to which it was stage-managed for the TV cameras.
Numerous Guardian readers have pointed out an aerial photograph of the scene, showing how small the crowd was. However, it is not known at what point the photograph was taken.
The picture is broadly consistent with remarks about the size of the crowd made by a BBC reporter who was on the spot at the time.
There are claims that the US flag draped over the statue's head was one that had been flying over the Pentagon at the time of the September 11 terrorist attacks, although this may just be a rumour.
The Iraqi flag produced after the stars and stripes appears to have been carefully selected. It was not the current flag, but the pre-1991 design. Shortly before the 1991 Gulf war, Saddam Hussein had the words Allahu Akbar (God is greatest) inserted between the stars, and these were missing from the flag used on Wednesday.
Discussion of this "defining moment" looks set to continue, and any further information will be welcome.
On one of the bleakest days since the invasion began, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld yesterday shrugged off turmoil and looting in Iraq as signs of the people's freedom.
"It's untidy, and freedom's untidy," he said, jabbing his hand in the air. "Free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They're also free to live their lives and do wonderful things."
Mr Rumsfeld insisted that words such as anarchy and lawlessness were unrepresentative of the situation in Iraq and "absolutely" ill-chosen.
"I picked up a newspaper today and I couldn't believe it," he said. "I read eight headlines that talked about chaos, violence, unrest. And it just was Henny Penny - 'The sky is falling'. I've never seen anything like it! And here is a country that's being liberated, here are people who are going from being repressed and held under the thumb of a vicious dictator, and they're free. And all this newspaper could do, with eight or 10 headlines, they showed a man bleeding, a civilian, who they claimed we had shot - one thing after another. It's just unbelievable ..."
In an extraordinary performance reminiscent of the Iraqi information minister who assured the world that all was well even as battles raged visibly around him, Mr Rumsfeld quipped:
"The images you are seeing on television you are seeing over, and over, and over, and it's the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase, and you see it 20 times, and you think, 'My goodness, were there that many vases? Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?' "
In what appeared to be a concerted effort to damp down media coverage of the chaos, the British government simultaneously laid into the BBC and its defence correspondent, Andrew Gilligan, accusing them of "trying to make the news" rather than reporting it.
A spokesman for prime minister Tony Blair claimed that "in the main the anarchy and disorder is being directed against symbols of the regime". Mr Gilligan hit back: "The reality is half the shopping district [in Baghdad] is now being looted. Downing Street may be saying it's only regime targets that are being attacked. I'm afraid it isn't."
In the absence of any authority, residents of Baghdad have been erecting barricades to keep out marauders and there is some evidence of shooting, either between looters and citizens who are trying to protect their own property, or between rival gangs of looters.
Hospitals and laboratories have been ransacked, with thieves often seizing vital equipment - heart monitors, incubators and microscopes - which is of no obvious use to them. A report today says only one hospital in the city still has a functioning operating theatre.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has reminded the US and Britain of their legal obligation under the Geneva Convention to protect civilians and essential services such as hospitals.
The US yesterday appealed for Baghdad's police - as well as fire and ambulance services - to resume work. It is doubtful that many will do so at present: the public is unlikely to welcome a return of the old regime's crime prevention apparatus, and the police themselves may be unwilling to put their lives at risk to help out the Americans.
In a move that further undermines the United Nations' role in Iraq, the US has secretly and unilaterally resumed weapons inspections, according to a report in the Guardian today.
This will also annoy the British government, which still officially supports the UN's Unmovic team.
The American inspection team, nicknamed "USmovic", which was set up in Kuwait a week before the war began, has already started work. It includes inspectors recruited from the previous Unscom team and is led by Charles Duelfer, former deputy head of Unscom.
The US has a pressing need to find evidence of chemical or biological weapons in Iraq, since this was the pretext for the invasion in the first place. But the American-controlled inspection team has no international recognition and will also have to struggle to establish its credibility. The work of Unscom during the 1990s was partly discredited by allegations of espionage which were later, to some extent, admitted. Whatever "USmovic" finds, it is liable to be accused of planting evidence, even if that is not actually the case.
In northern Iraq, where the key cities of Mosul and Kirkuk were "liberated" by Kurdish forces with American support, the "liberation" of any available property has also begun.
Turkey is particularly worried about Kirkuk and has troops on the border ready to invade if Kurdish forces do withdraw from the city. Turkey's fear is that possession of Kirkuk and the surrounding oilfields would make a Kurdish state in the region economically viable. This could jeopardise the territorial integrity of Turkey, where there is a substantial Kurdish population.
This morning there are reports of some Kurdish forces leaving Kirkuk, but they are said to be holding back until more US troops arrive to take over from them and maintain order.
This is only part of the picture, however. At the same time, large numbers of armed Kurdish civilians have been reported entering the city. They are said to be former residents of Kirkuk who were displaced by Saddam Hussein's policy of Arabisation (ethnic "cleansing"). In the slightly longer term, these returnees are likely to strengthen Kurdish claims to possession of the city.
In southern Iraq, it was reported yesterday that British forces shot dead five alleged bank robbers in Basra. The robbers are said to have fired first.
There is also some embarrassment over Sheikh Muzahim Tamimi, the tribal leader appointed by Britain to take charge of Basra province. It has emerged that he is a former brigadier-general in Saddam Hussein's army and was once a member of the Ba'ath party. Several hundred protesters threw stones at his house earlier this week.
One theory circulating in London is that the sheikh was appointed accidentally because British intelligence confused him with his anti-Saddam brother (who turns out to have been shot dead by the secret police in 1994).
An Iraqi general who was in charge of liaison with United Nations weapons inspectors before the war gave himself up to American forces in Baghdad yesterday after discovering that he was on a list of the 55 "most wanted" officials.
General Amer Hammoudi al-Saadi, who has a German wife, was accompanied by a German television crew whom he had invited to film the surrender, apparently to ensure his safety.
US secretary of state Colin Powell singled out General Saadi for criticism in his speech to the UN security council last February.
"It was General Saadi who last [autumn] publicly pledged that Iraq was prepared to cooperate unconditionally with inspectors," Mr Powell said. "Quite the contrary, Saadi's job is not to cooperate; it is to deceive, not to disarm, but to undermine the inspectors; not to support them, but to frustrate them and to make sure they learn nothing."
In contrast, the chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, described General Saadi as "extremely knowledgeable and businesslike", adding that unlike the Iraqi deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, he did not constantly inject politics in discussions about the inspections. However, Mr Blix also said General Saadi's claim that Iraq destroyed all its chemical and biological weapons in the summer of 1991 "had no credibility".
General Saadi, a chemist who was trained in Britain and Germany, worked on Iraq’s chemical weapons programme in the 1980s and 1990s.
Whether he will now lead the US to the elusive "smoking gun" remains to be seen. Yesterday he told the German TV station, ZDF, that he had been honest in his dealings with weapons inspectors and felt in "no way guilty". He continued to insist that Iraq did not possess chemical or biological weapons.
Amid scenes of vigilantes beating up suspected looters and threatening them with guns, Iraqi demonstrators yesterday vented their wrath at the Sheraton hotel in Baghdad where the US Marines now have their headquarters. "Where is the law?" one of them complained. "This is democracy in Baghdad?"
Eyewitnesses say American troops have been standing aside as looters go about their plundering and in some cases have even waved booty-laden cars through checkpoints.
Three Malaysian journalists were ambushed and kidnapped by unidentified gunmen shortly after leaving the Sheraton hotel yesterday. An Iraqi interpreter accompanying them was shot dead. They were among a group of 28 journalists sent to Baghdad last week at the expense of the Malaysian government which had complained of biased reporting by western news media in Iraq.
Efforts to reinstate Saddam Hussein’s police force have so far met with limited success. About 80 officers have reported for duty and last night a token police car with three officers inside was said to be patrolling the city.
This morning the US began its first air patrols over Baghdad in an effort to improve security.
The state department last week awarded a multi-million dollar contract for private police work in Iraq to DynCorp, a security firm which has donated more than £100,000 to the Republican party.
A report in today’s Observer says the company, which has branch offices in the British military town of Aldershot, has already begun recruiting in Britain with offers of one-year employment contracts at a salary of £51,000 plus "hazard bonuses".
The paper reveals that DynCorp was recently ordered by a British employment tribunal to pay £110,000 to a UN police officer in Bosnia who was unfairly sacked for blowing the whistle on colleagues involved in an illegal sex ring.
Expectations that the Baathists will make a bloody "last stand" in Tikrit - Saddam Hussein’s birthplace - are unlikely to be fulfilled, judging by reports this morning.
Tikrit has previously been subjected to heavy bombing and, according to the US military, Iraqi reinforcements were seen digging in around the town. But live pictures this morning from CNN correspondent Brent Sadler, who drove into the northern outskirts unopposed, showed no sign of Iraqi fighters or armour. A military base five miles from the centre was derelict, with destroyed artillery and empty tanks along the roads around Tikrit, 175 km (110 miles) north of Baghdad.
"I've not seen one single symbol of [Iraqi] authority in the last hour of transmission," Mr Sadler said.
Later, however, the CNN crew left in a hurry after coming under small arms fire - though it was unclear who was responsible for the shooting. One of the drivers suffered a head wound and a vehicle was badly damaged.
In a further sign of the Kurds’ assertiveness, Kurdish peshmerga guerrillas also came within two miles of Tikrit last night before pulling back. Again, there was little sign of resistance apart from minor skirmishes.
This seems to demolish the theory that the Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard have retreated to Tikrit, though it only adds to the mystery of what has happened to them.
The US yesterday continued its verbal onslaught against Syria when Colin Powell called on Iraq’s neighbour to detain any Iraqi officials seeking refuge. President Bush had earlier said the Syrian authorities should "turn them over to the proper folks".
Tension was exacerbated yesterday when the US military said a man who shot dead a Marine outside a hospital in Baghdad was a Syrian national. In the early stages of the war a number of Arab volunteers crossed into Iraq from Syria.
US forces in Iraq have now sealed off the roads leading to and from Syria.
The Syrian foreign minister, Farouq al-Sharaa, yesterday described the American accusations as baseless and challenged Washington to provide evidence. The French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, on a visit to Damascus, called for an end to the war of words. "Now is the time for a display of responsibility, not polemics," he said.
Syrian television reported that President Bashar al-Asad received a phone call on Friday evening from the British prime minister, Tony Blair. It gave no details beyond saying they "discussed developments in Iraq and their repercussions".
The British foreign office confirmed last week that at present Syria has no legal obligation to hand over any Iraqi fugitives, since none have yet been formally indicted or charged with crimes.
American tanks and troops entered the main square of Tikrit early this morning. As Tikrit is Saddam Hussein's birthplace there were predictions that his supporters would make a defiant last stand there - though resistance so far has been less than expected.
Bombing of the town continued yesterday and the US appears to have rejected an offer by a local tribal chief, Yussuf abd al-Aziz al-Nassari, to negotiate a peaceful surrender. According to Agence France Presse, Mr Nassari asked to be allowed 48 hours to persuade the remaining Iraqi forces to lay down their arms.
Tikrit is the last major population centre to be wrested from Baathist control. There are still numerous smaller towns and villages to be dealt with, but the capture of Tikrit will essentially mark the end of the "liberation" phase of the war. Iraqis are now free - or, as US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld put it last week, "free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things".
In Baghdad, armed vigilante groups are patrolling some of the streets and all but a handful of shops remain shuttered. Electricity supplies have still not been restored. Several hundred Iraqi officials have reportedly volunteered for work, though this has made little impact so far.
Attention at the weekend focused on the destruction of the city's museum. US forces had carefully avoided bombing it but then stood by as looters plundered its treasures or, in many cases, simply smashed them.
In the northern city of Kirkuk, tensions are rising between Arabs and returning Kurdish refugees who were driven out under Saddam Hussein's "Arabisation" policy. A BBC correspondent in Kirkuk says returning Kurds have threatened with eviction the Arab families who now live there. In the south, Basra is still without safe drinking water and doctors have warned of a possible epidemic. Provision of humanitarian aid is being hampered by the lack of security.
Confusion reigns in Najaf, where an armed mob reportedly surrounded the home of Ayatollah Mirza Ali Sistani, a pro-western Shia cleric, and gave him 48 hours to leave the country. A statement issued by the ayatollah said the "lives of the great religious authorities in Najaf are threatened", and added that the US-led forces "bear the responsibility" to protect them. Last Thursday, another cleric who had just returned from exile in Britain was hacked to death in the holiest mosque in Najaf.
For the moment, all these intractable and possibly chronic problems heavily outweigh successes such as the return of seven missing Americans who were found alive and well on a road north of Baghdad yesterday, and the capture near Mosul of Saddam's half-brother, Watban al-Tikriti (number 51 on the "wanted" list).
A meeting of prominent Iraqis is due to take place in Nassiriya tomorrow under US auspices. This appears to be the Americans' response to an attempt by Ahmad Chalabi, the controversial leader of the Iraqi National Congress, to establish a power base by convening his own meeting in the town. The US objected to Mr Chalabi's meeting, describing it as his "coronation". Mr Chalabi yesterday dismissed the Americans' meeting, saying "no decisions will be taken" at it, and indicated that he will not be attending.
The Guardian today has details of the banking scandal in Jordan that led to Mr Chalabi being sentenced in his absence to 22 years' jail on 31 charges of embezzlement, theft, misuse of depositor funds and currency speculation.
The US stepped up its verbal attacks on Syria yesterday. President George Bush raised the issue of weapons of mass destruction: "I think we believe there are chemical weapons in Syria," he said. Defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld repeated claims that Syria is giving refuge to senior Iraqi officials. The US military has also drawn attention to the presence of fighters in Iraq who are said to have Syrian nationality (it is an established fact that Arab volunteers from various countries did enter Iraq from Syria in the early stages of the war).
Syria has dismissed the claims about harbouring members of Saddam's regime, though in any case it would have no legal obligation to hand them over since none have yet been formally accused of crimes. Little is known publicly about the current state of any chemical weapons programmes in Syria, though some information - possibly outdated - can be found on the website of the Federation of American Scientists. Over the weekend, the Syrian deputy ambassador in Washington, Imad Moustapha, accused the US of "a campaign of misinformation and disinformation about Syria". On weapons of mass destruction, he told NBC News: "We will not only accept the most rigid inspection regime, we will welcome it heartily."
Syria was not originally included with Iraq, Iran and North Korea in President Bush's "Axis of Evil". Many observers believe this is not a build up to military action but an attempt to make the Syrian government change its policies or face destabilisation. But the current focus on Syria does fit the blueprint for reshaping Israel's "strategic environment" that was proposed by the "Clean Break" document. Richard Perle, a Pentagon adviser and one of the leading proponents of war with Iraq, was the main author of the document, which set out advice for the incoming Israeli government of Binyamin Netanyahu.
A key passage said: "Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening,containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq - an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right - as a means of foiling Syria's regional ambitions."