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March 24, 2003

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Allies Target Elite Force Near Baghdad
Coalition Planes Target Elite Force Near Iraqi Capital; Army Heads Toward Town 50 Miles South

The Associated Press

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NEAR KARBALA, Iraq March 24

Coalition planes targeted Republican Guard forces just south of Baghdad on Monday in perhaps the largest assault to date on Saddam Hussein's highly trained troops, U.S. officials said.

Meanwhile, the Army's 3rd Infantry Division dashed north Monday toward the Shiite holy city of Karbala, only 50 miles south of Baghdad, but was stalled by a sandstorm that blew out of the desert.

While Iraqi paramilitary units harassed coalition troops from the rear, U.S.-led forces tried to maintain their advance on Baghdad. The troops made a rapid advance under heavy allied air protection that wiped out a column of charging Iraqi armor and sent some of Saddam's outer defenses withdrawing toward the capital.

But the weather not Iraqi troops halted the long columns of thousands of vehicles that were stretched across the desert and farms.

To get here, the troops drove north through flat, desert terrain, passing bombed trucks that had anti-aircraft guns mounted on them, empty foxholes and berms dug for tanks that had been abandoned by Iraqi forces. Cabs of the anti-aircraft trucks were peeled back missile blasts, which scorched the ground around the trucks. Some had bodies still inside, burned beyond recognition.

There were also incidents reported in southern Iraq's Rumailah oil fields. At one point, five Iraqis in civilian clothes who appeared to be surrendering sprayed machinegun fire at British soldiers. Reports of casualties were not immediately confirmed, but civilians trying to put out fires in the oil fields were forced to leave, and U.S. Marines declared the fields unsafe for journalists.

Meanwhile, a British soldier was killed in combat in southern Iraq, the first British combat death since the war began, the Ministry of Defense said.

The soldier, whose name was not made public, was killed near Az Zubayr in southern Iraq, the ministry said. A spokeswoman declined to provide further details but said the soldier's family had been notified.

In the southern Iraqi navy port of Az Zubayr, which the coalition claimed Sunday, a U.S. Marine patrol reported being fired on Monday from a stand of trees; Marines responded with tanks and artillery fire. It was not clear who fired on the patrol or if the firefight was related to the British death.

In northern Iraq, coalition warplanes bombed a military barracks Monday, shattering windows for miles around and igniting huge plumes of smoke. Frightened residents fled the area around Chamchamal in a stream of cars, taxis and buses.

A top Kurdish military official, Rostam Kirkuki, said the Americans bombed the entire corridor between Chamchamal and Kirkuk, a key oil center.

An American officer confirmed Monday that U.S. forces have been in northern Iraq for about 24 hours. He would reveal no details or numbers of the troops.

U.S. Marine Col. Keith Lawless, speaking to reporters before a news briefing in the city of Salahuddin in Iraq's Kurdish autonomous region, said the American forces had arrived but would not say from where they had come nor where they were.

Over the weekend, U.S. air strikes in northern Iraq pounded positions of the militant Ansar al-Islam group, an Islamic group with alleged al-Qaida and Baghdad ties.

Fierce fighting was still erupting in southern Iraq. British troops were engaged in artillery exchanges with Iraqi forces on the outskirts of Basra, some of it heavy, British military officials said. British troops have remained outside the city, the second-largest in Iraq, unable to move through it because of pockets of resistance.

A British spokeswoman at U.S. Central Command said the resistance was coming from irregular units, either the elite Republican Guard, Special Security Organization forces or Saddam's Fedayeen, the Baath Party paramilitary organization. U.S. commander Gen. Tommy Franks said the Fedayeen militia had been harassing troops and creating "difficulties" at the rear.

Outside the Shiite holy city of Najaf, south of Karbala, U.S. soldiers skirmished with Iraqi forces before dawn Monday. Iraqis shot rockets and anti-aircraft guns at the Americans.

Small groups using pickup trucks or on foot tried to approach U.S. positions but were driven back by tank and artillery fire.

To the southeast near An Nasiriyah, a convoy of hundreds of vehicles including tanks, TOW missiles and armored personnel carriers was backed up along the road leading to a pontoon bridge across the Euphrates River.

Two bloody battles a day earlier near An Nasiriyah, 230 miles from Baghdad, had deepened the Marines' sense of just how treacherous the drive to the Iraqi capital could be. Some of the Americans had been killed by Iraqis pretending to surrender.

In the southern desert, where some of the fiercest fighting has taken place, Marines stormed squat adobe cinderblock buildings. They found no one there, but discovered abandoned clothing for chemical or biological attacks.

People who had been in the buildings departed so quickly they left their boots behind as well as a relatively new picture of Saddam Hussein.

U.S. troops were digging in with long lines of amphibious armored vehicles stretching across the desert, disguised by camouflage.

At one position Marines constructed a .50 caliber machine gun nest to cover three buildings in the near distance.

Officials would not say when they expected to arrive at the capital city. "We'll arrive in the vicinity of Baghdad soon, and I prefer to leave it at that," said Lt. Gen. John Abizaid of U.S. Central Command.

Because of the resistance at An Nasiriyah, Marine officials said they expected to sidestep the city rather than fight to capture it the same strategy they employed in Basra.

photo credit and caption:
U.S. Army infantrymen discuss their next mission while in the desert near Karbalah, Iraq Monday, March 24, 2003. The soldiers are with Company A 3rd Battalion 7th Infantry Regiment and is part of the 3rd Infantry Division advancing further into Iraq. (AP Photo/John Moore)

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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