A FIERCE battle was today raging in the heart of Baghdad after an American armoured column smashed its way into the Iraqi capital.

US troops were said to have seized three presidential palaces and raised the American flag over one of them, and reporters inside the city centre reported seeing tanks and fighting around them.

A 100-strong column of tanks and armoured vehicles carried out the assault, preceded by F-16 fighters which bombed Iraqi armoured vehicles in the path of the column.

The Americans were also said to have seized the Information Ministry building in Baghdad, and to have tightened their grip around the city's outskirts.

There were mixed messages about the full significance of the attack.

In one report a US military spokesman, referring to today's operation and the previous armoured assault into Baghdad, said: "The other day was just an incursion. This for real."

But the Pentagon later said the attack was a "show of force" and a "powerful message" to the Iraqi regime, and should not necessarily be taken to be the "battle for Baghdad".

UK forces spokesman Al Lockwood said he was delighted by news of the attack, adding it was a signal to Saddam Hussein that his regime should capitulate as soon as possible to prevent further casualties, particularly to civilians, and to preserve the country's infrastructure.

The Ministry of Defence revealed today that three British soldiers had been killed during the battle for Basra, after UK forces launched major assaults into the centre of Iraq's second city led by 7th Armoured Brigade and the Royal Marines.

Today there were reports that the body of the Iraqi commander in Basra, Ali Hassan al-Majid, a cousin of Saddam Hussein known as "Chemical Ali" for his use of chemical weapons against Kurdish people 15 years ago, had been found.

The British forces said they controlled the "vast majority" of the city.

A total of 18 people, including US special forces, Kurdish fighters and a BBC interpreter, were killed in a devastating "friendly fire" incident in northern Iraq, near the city of Mosul.

An American plane hit the allied column, after an officer with the column called in air support against a nearby Iraqi tank. Veteran BBC correspondent John Simpson was injured in the attack.

President George W Bush was due to fly to Northern Ireland today, to meet Tony Blair to discuss the warn in Iraq and the peace process in Ulster.

Updated: 08:39 Monday, April 07, 2003