US forces reported their first serious battle with Iraq's elite Republican Guard south of Baghdad as they geared for a major push on the capital in their drive to topple Saddam Hussein.
Officers with the US Army's 3rd Infantry Division said 200 Iraqis were killed, wounded or captured in fighting that broke out overnight southeast of the city of Karbala, 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Baghdad.
Colonel Will Grimsley, commander of the division's First Brigade, said there had been sporadic encounters earlier with elements of the Republican Guard in the area, but "this is the first serious contact."
Few details were available, but correspondents traveling with the 3rd Infantry Division heard artillery and rocket fire in the area.
Reports of the battle around Karbala, a Shiite Muslim holy city in central Iraq, came as US armored units finalized plans for a decisive thrust toward the capital within a week, commanders said.
The 20,000-strong Third Infantry Division, the heavy armored force spearheading the invasion, has concentrated near the Euphrates valley town of Najaf, 150 kilometers (95 miles) south of Baghdad.
US Apache helicopters from the 101st Airborne Division, as well as British and US warplanes, have been softening up the area around Karbala where the Republican Guard's armored Medina division was reported to be lying in wait.
Apaches also attacked Iraqi positions north of Najaf, about 70 kilometers (45 miles) south of Karbala, in what a US officers described as "low-intensity" combat early Monday.
There was no word on Iraqi casualties but officers said one Apache pilot was wounded when his aircraft was riddled with small-arms fire.
Elsewhere, fighting was reported in Najaf and the southern Iraqi city of Samawah while British forces launched a major assault to secure a suburb in the southern city of Basra.
In the north, Iraqi positions on the frontlines between government troops and Kurdish rebel-held territory came under coalition air attack for a third night running.
US officials said 100 irregular Iraqi troops were killed in Najaf and Samawah early Sunday in fighting involving soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division and members of the elite 82nd Airborne Division.
"Between them, the two units also captured some 50 enemy prisoners of war," said a statement released from the US Central Command (Centcom) foward headquarters in Qatar.
US marines and Iraqi forces also traded artillery fire overnight as Americans launched bombing strikes on the central Iraqi town of Sharat, a military spokesman said.
Lieutenant Colonel Pete Owen said the Iraqis had moved an artillery battery within range of US lines south of al-Kut.
"They fired one round out of each tube and we were able to locate them and shot back," he said.
Coalition warplanes meanwhile kept pounding Iraqi positions in "shaping up" operations to clear the way for the offensive.
A missile hit Iraq's information ministry in Baghdad early Monday, an AFP correspondent reported two days after the building was damaged in a first strike on the regime's propaganda machine.
Iraqi television broadcasts were interrupted in Baghdad during the morning, but it was not clear if the latest missile strike had caused the breakdown. The state television compound lies near the ministry in central Baghdad.
At least one missile also slammed into the presidential compound in central Baghdad just after midnight.
In the southern city of Basra, hundreds of British Royal Marines launched a major assault to secure a southeast suburb, officers said.
Some 600 men from 40 Commando attacked Abu Al Khasib on Sunday in the first all-out British assault by a full commando since the Falklands War in 1982. The operation was continuing Monday.
British troops suffered an unknown number of injuries, some serious, although at least 300 enemy prisoners of war were taken and a number of Iraqi tanks, armoured troop carriers and bunkers destroyed.
British troops near Basra also reported Sunday that they had discovered a Geiger counter and nerve gas simulators marked "dangerous to humans if exposed for 10 minutes without a respirator".
US marines near the southern city of Nasiriyah also discovered two decontamination vehicles as well as hundreds of chemical warfare suits and gas masks in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah, the Central Command said Monday.
In the north, air strikes on Iraqi frontline positions were heard in the nearby Kurdish rebel-held town of Kalak, some 40 kilometres (25 miles) east of Mosul, beginning shortly after midnight (2115 GMT Sunday).