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Army's 3rd Infantry Races Toward Baghdad
Army's 3rd Infantry Racing Toward Shiite Holy City of Karbala, Only 50 Miles South of Baghdad

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NEAR KARBALA, Iraq March 24

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 the desert in the afternoon.

The troops made their rapid advance under heavy allied air protection that wiped out a column of charging Iraqi armor and sent some of Saddam Hussein'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.

The trip north passed bombed anti-aircraft guns, empty foxholes and berms dug for tanks that had been abandoned by Iraqi forces.

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.

"It was more of the same from last night, mainly just harassment by Iraqi troops," said Capt. Chris Carter of Watkinsville, Ga., commander of A Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry regiment

Mosques in the cities of Najaf and Karbala are the most sacred sites to Iraq's majority Shiite Muslims after those in Saudi Arabia.

Najaf is the site of the tomb of Imam Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of Islam's Prophet Muhammad. Shiites aspire to bury their dead in its cemetery, which stretches for miles and is the largest in the Muslim world.

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.

Marines with scarves around their heads lay in the sand on either side of the line of traffic, pointing their M-16s toward the desert. Anyone who approached faced close scrutiny.

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.

The point man for one set of vehicles, a young Marine with a quiet Southern drawl, seemed typical of the mood. As he spoke, his gaze was fixed straight ahead, his finger on the trigger, ready for whatever might lie across the sand.

His eyes looked tired. He had had about an hour of sleep a night over the previous few days as the convoy kept pressing on.

"It's going to be a long day, I think," he said. Asked if he had drawn any fire, he said "Not yet. When we reach Baghdad, I think."

In London, Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon sought to downplay concerns that the U.S. and British forces were becoming bogged down.

"I think that within three days of real military operations beginning, the idea that somehow people are losing confidence or heart is nonsense," Hoon told a news conference.

"This is a difficult demanding, complex, sophisticated military operation. It is not going to be over in a matter of days."

In the southern desert, where some of the fiercest fighting has taken place, Marines stormed squat adobe cinderblock buildings. They found non 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.

With the Marines crossing the Euphrates near An Nasiriyah a Marine from the Twentynine Palms base in California who was in the 1991 Gulf War. He noted the change in mood this time.

"When you're at war in someone's homeland, it's a different story," he said. "Last time" in Kuwait "everyone was happy to see us. We were liberating the country. So we did it, we won, everyone was happy and we went home."

But here, there is constant anxiety about disguised Iraqi soldiers waiting to attack, and constant wondering about just who is the enemy.

"We saw some black berets hanging up in a tree, and we went to investigate and we saw all these uniforms hanging there. I figure half these guys you see walking around are soldiers. They've discarded their uniforms," the Marine said. "They're out there, they're watching us and they're planning small counterattacks."

Outside the Shiite holy city of Najaf, at the northern end of the advance, U.S. soldiers skirmished with Iraqi forces before dawn Monday.

In an apparent indication of renewed Iraqi resistance in the south, the U.S. military canceled a news media trip to Iraq's most productive oil field, which allied forces previously claimed to have secured. Marine Capt. Danny Chung said the Rumeila oil field was "unsafe" Monday. He gave no details, but there have been news reports of Iraqi attacks on the field.

Also, a trip for reporters to the southern city of Umm Qasr, where there was sporadic fighting days after the allies took effective control, was canceled as well.

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.

American authorities detailed two bloody battles there on Sunday:

Marines encountered Iraqi troops who appeared to be surrendering. Instead, they attacked. The Americans triumphed, knocking out eight tanks, some anti-aircraft batteries, some artillery and infantry, Abizaid said. But victory came at a cost: as many as nine dead and an undisclosed number of wounded.

A six-vehicle Army supply convoy apparently took a wrong turn and was ambushed. The vehicles were destroyed, and a dozen soldiers were missing. Iraqi television showed five captured Americans and four bodies it said were of U.S. soldiers.

The Iraqis were jubilant. "Our valiant forces were lying in wait for them, inflicting heavy losses on the covetous invaders, killing at least 25 of them, and injuring a large number of them. Also, a number of their mercenaries were captured," the Iraqi military said in a communique.

Separately, two British soldiers were missing after coming under attack Sunday in southern Iraq, the British Defense Ministry said.

photo credit and caption:
U.S. Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit set up a position during a scouting mission at a village in Az Zubayar, southern Iraq's desert, Monday, March 24, 2003. Troops pressed toward Baghdad with new wariness on Monday, as militiamen loyal to Saddam Hussein proved they were not a beaten force. Iraq claimed to have shot down two U.S. helicopters and taken two pilots prisoner, a day after more than 20 Americans were killed or captured. (AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye)

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

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