AMERICAN ground forces have been taking on Iraq's Republican Guard in fierce battles south of Baghdad.

The US troops became engaged with the Iraqi elite forces at Kerbala, 70 miles south-west of Baghdad, from about midnight British time. They were supported by warplanes, Apache helicopters and artillery.

"This is the big battle," said an American military official in Qatar.

The Medina and Baghdad Divisions of the Republican Guard were said to be involved in the fighting.

US Marines were also said to have taken on the Republican Guard during an eight-hour fight at the town of Diwaniyah, 70 miles south of Baghdad. Thye battle follows the bombardment of US forces from within the town, and was said to have left 80 Iraqis dead and 40 taken prisoner.

Saddam Hussein has told the Iraqi people to rise up in a Jihad, or Holy War, against invading forces. He promised his people victory, and urged those holding the city of Nasiriyah to stand fast.

American forces have rescued a female prisoner-of-war, 19-year-old Private First Class Jessica Lynch, from a hospital in Nasiriyah. She was a supply clerk with an American maintenance unit.

A British soldier has been killed in an accident in the Gulf region, bringing the total UK dead so far to 27.

A palace used by Saddam Hussein's son Qusay has been bombed again during air raids on Baghdad.

The Americans have said that their Apache helicopters could not have been involved in raids on the Iraqi town of Hillah in which "dozens" of civilians were said to have been killed.

The British ground commander at Basra, Major General Robin Brims, has said he is in no hurry to take Iraq's second city.

Updated: 08:19 Wednesday, April 02, 2003