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March 24, 2003
 
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Shoring Up the Rear
U.S. Troops Encounter Pockets of Resistance En Route to Baghdad


ABCNEWS.com

March 23 U.S.-led troops racing north through Iraq are focused on Baghdad, not the towns and cities along the way, but soldiers are nevertheless encountering guerrilla fighters, as ambushes at Nasiriya showed.


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"The policy has been really to bypass most of these areas," one British Royal Marine told ABCNEWS.

That has left U.S. forces in the rear, still trading fire with guerrillas and paramilitary units after the frontline fighters have moved on.

"There are also some fanatics who will remove their uniforms and become and masquerade as civilians, and they'll shoot at us," said one U.S. Marine.

Great Risk of Casualties

The fighting in Umm Qasr, a port in southern Iraq, and other areas that were initially bypassed has been fierce at times. Twelve American soldiers are missing and believed to be in Iraqi custody after being ambushed near Nasiriya. The battle for the southern Iraqi city was described as the "sharpest engagement" of the war yet, with about 1,000 Marines taking part.

U.S. and British military officers around Umm Qasr and Basra in southern Iraq reported sporadic clashes with Iraqis and said they were making progress against opposing forces in both cities. A Republican Guard commander was reported captured.

"There's great potential for significant combat and significant casualties," said retired U.S. Army Gen. Bill Nash, an ABCNEWS consultant.

One group of soldiers ambushed near Nasiriya was made up of maintenance workers. They were part of a supply convoy that is believed to have taken a wrong turn outside Nasiriya while on a mission to carry out repair work.

They were traveling in a column of six vehicles that encountered a roadblock and came under heavy fire.

Soldiers who are involved in bringing supplies are stationed in the rear and are typically not as well-equipped to deal with fighting as the soldiers out front.

"They don't have the organization, equipment and training of frontline combat troops," said retired Marine Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold. "They do have weapons and machine guns, but a fight in the rear is going to be a hard one."

Also in Nasiriya, a group of U.S. Marines was ambushed by a group of Iraqis who pretended to be surrendering, then opened fire with rocket-launched grenades, guns and mortars. About 50 of the Marines were injured.

Saddam Hussein makes a televised speech, vowing victory and referring to key recent battles and bombings.

Iraqi television shows images of a downed helicopter, CENTCOM acknowledges a U.S. Apache helicopter is missing, but gives no details.

U.S. forces capture what some say may be a chemical weapons facility in Najaf and detain the facility's commanding general.

Twelve U.S. soldiers are believed captured near the southern city of Nasiriya. President Bush demands any POWs be treated humanely.

As many as 1,000 U.S. Marines engage in fierce battles in Nasiriya; as many as 50 are wounded and military officials say some were killed.

The Arab al Jazeera network and Iraqi state television air footage of what is said to be dead and captured American soldiers.



Another concern is desperate Iraqi civilians left behind in southern cities, begging for food. "Give me the helping," one Iraqi man pleaded with soldiers. "My children is hungry. My old man is hungry. My women hungry. No medicine, no water, no food."

Costly Delays

Nash was the U.S. military administrator of a portion of southern Iraq for a few months after the 1991 Gulf War. He strongly supports the current dash toward Baghdad, but worries about troop reinforcements and humanitarian aid in the rear areas.

"That is my single greatest concern, that they will not be there soon enough," he said. "And I see no evidence that we're prepared at this time for this type of confusion and chaos that will take place in the wake of our successful sure to be successful attack."

Along with food, water and medicine, there is a need for order.

"You have to get rid of the civil disturbances and all the looting and various crimes that are going to go on without law before you even talk about establishing a permanent, let alone Democratic, government," said retired U.S. Navy Capt. Rosemary Mariner.

For now, the cities and towns largely passed up by advancing U.S. forces are uneasy and dangerous for the troops and the people still there.

ABCNEWS' Barry Serafin reported this story.

 
 
 
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