Coalition troops pressed toward Baghdad with new wariness today, as militiamen loyal to Saddam Hussein proved they were not a beaten force and sandstorms snarled the advance. Iraq claimed to have shot down two U.S. helicopters and taken pilots prisoner, a day after more than 20 Americans were killed or captured.

Facing a pattern of deadly ambushes and ruses, and with many of Saddam's supporters discarding their uniforms in favor of civilian clothes, coalition forces responded with tough new tactics in the south.

U.S. officials also confirmed their forces have arrived in northern Iraq, and have been operating there for about 24 hours. Coalition warplanes bombed a military barracks near the Kurdish-held town of Chamchamal, not far from the Iraqi oil center of Kirkuk.

Saddam, in an appearance that seemed calculated to show he remained at the helm, sought to rally his people today with a televised speech. Speaking on Iraqi TV before a white backdrop, he appeared relaxed and healthy - strikingly different from the way he looked in a speech aired Thursday, the day the air assault began.

In full military dress, he assured Iraqis "victory will be ours soon," and mentioned the defiant resistance of Iraqi forces in Umm Qasr, which U.S. and British forces have struggled to hold since Saturday. The reference seemed designed to allay any suspicion that the address had been taped earlier, or that Saddam had been wounded or killed last week.

However, the language was general enough that U.S. and British officials were not convinced. A senior U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity said U.S. intelligence had determined that Saddam's speech was recorded but that it was unclear when it was taped - hours or weeks before the strikes.

Iraqi TV later showed images of what appeared to be a downed U.S. Apache attack helicopter sitting largely undamaged in a grassy field. Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf claimed peasants had shot down two Apaches and that pilots were in custody.

U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks confirmed that one helicopter and two pilots were missing in action but he rejected the idea that farmers had brought down the copter.

Speaking at a briefing in Qatar, he said Saddam's command and control network was still working but was damaged.

Franks said that U.S.-led coalition forces were making "rapid and in some cases dramatic" progress in Iraq but also have met sporadic resistance.

In Baghdad, security and police officers dug more trenches around military offices in the heart of the Iraqi capital, as smoke from fires set to conceal targets from bombing hung over the city Monday. Daytime traffic was heavy in some areas, youngsters played soccer on side streets and Iraqis walked the city despite the tension from days of bombing by coalition forces.

Fifty miles to the south, a brutal sandstorm with howling winds stalled U.S. troops near Karbala, a city holy to Iraq's majority Shiite Muslims. As the 7th Infantry Regiment pressed north, Iraqi militiamen shot mortars at a supply convoy of Humvees and cargo trucks. There were no casualties. Commanders requested air support, but the Iraqis were able to flee easily in small, civilian trucks.

Armed members of Saddam's Fedayeen, the Baath Party paramilitary organization, have increasingly been attacking coalition supply lines in this way.

Franks said U.S. forces had "intentionally bypassed enemy formations," but that the Fedayeen had been harassing the U.S. rear in southern Iraq.

With tension about such attacks mounting, Marines operating in the south took a tough approach with Iraqis they encountered Monday, forcing men from vehicles, questioning them and then slashing their tires to make sure they wouldn't harass other convoys.

A British soldier was killed in combat near Az Zubayr in southern Iraq on Monday, the first British combat death since the war began, the British Ministry of Defense said. Two other British troops were reported missing Sunday after their convoy was attacked in southern Iraq.

Coalition officials said their forces were exchanging fire Monday with Iraqis on the outskirts of Basra, Iraq's main southern city, where the allies earlier captured an airport and a key bridge. Commanders held off storming the city, hoping its Iraqi defenders would give up, but they have held firm.

A U.S. official noted that the British have been under some fairly heavy fire recently outside the city.

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