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March 24, 2003
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Troops Meet Setbacks on Road to Baghdad
U.S. Troops Meet Setbacks on Road to Baghdad; Coalition Leaders Say Mission Remains on Target

The Associated Press

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March 24

More than 20 Americans were killed or captured in a single day of combat as militiamen loyal to Saddam Hussein proved they were not a beaten force. Coalition leaders insisted the mission remains on target, and troops made what could be an important discovery: a suspected chemical factory.

The Iraqi leader spoke in a televised address Monday, appearing relaxed and robust strikingly different from the way he looked in the speech aired Thursday after the first air strikes on Baghdad.

In full military dress, Saddam assured Iraqis "victory will be ours soon," and specifically mentioned the defiant resistance of Iraqi forces in Umm Qasr, the strategic southern port that the U.S.-British coalition has struggled to hold since Saturday.

The reference seemed designed to allay any suspicion that the address had been previously taped, or that Saddam had been wounded or killed last week.

The effort to rally the Iraqi people came a day after a series of ruse attacks inflicted the first significant casualties on the allied forces driving toward Baghdad. In one incident near An Nasiriyah, a crossing point over the Euphrates River, a group of Iraqis waved a white flag in surrender, then opened up with artillery fire. Another group appeared to welcome coalition troops, then attacked them, U.S. officials said.

Up to nine Marines died and a dozen U.S. soldiers were missing and presumed captured after the surprise engagements. Also, two British soldiers were missing after a convoy of vehicles they were traveling in was attacked in southern Iraq, British defense officials said.

In images shown on Iraqi television Sunday, five captured U.S. soldiers four men and a woman appeared frightened but resolute as they answered questions from their interrogators. Arab television also showed what it said were four American dead in an Iraqi morgue.

"It's like a bad dream, seeing your son get captured on TV," said Anecita Hudson, of Alamogordo, N.M., whose son, Army Spc. Joseph Hudson, was among those captured.

Another prisoner was identified by his family as Pfc. Patrick Miller of Park City, Kan., the father of two young children.

As the fourth day of the ground war opened Monday, the steady advance of allied forces in southern Iraq slowed. But despite the bloody setbacks, the U.S.-British coalition maintained a position near the city of Najaf, about 100 miles from Baghdad, and cultivated a growing northern front.

In northern Iraq, coalition warplanes bombed a military barracks Monday, near Kurdish-held town of Chamchamal, not far from the northern Iraqi oil center of Kirkuk. At least six bombs struck Iraqi positions with such force that the ground shook and windows were shattered up to three miles away. Frightened residents fled the area as huge plumes of smoke choked the skies.

"People are evacuating, but not because of the bombing. They are afraid Saddam will respond with chemical weapons," said Ahmad Qafoor, a school teacher.

Elsewhere, a U.S. missile struck a Syrian passenger bus near the Iraqi border, killing five and injuring 10, Syria's official news agency reported Monday. The U.S. Central Command said it had no information about the report, noting that U.S. forces do not target civilians.

The bus, loaded with Syrians fleeing the war in Iraq, was struck Sunday morning on the Iraqi side of the border, the agency reported. Syria, which strongly opposes the U.S.-led war on Iraq, has repeatedly called for a peaceful solution to the conflict.

The Iraqi capital was bombarded early Monday with what appeared to be the strongest airstrikes since Friday. A mosque blared "God is great" and "Thanks be to God," perhaps to boost Iraqis' morale.

Outside An Nasiriyah early Monday, the mood among Marines was somber and tense, particularly as they learned that some of their comrades were killed while trying to take in prisoners of war. Lt. Gen. John Abizaid of U.S. Central Command said the faked surrender had sparked the "sharpest engagement of the war thus far."

A convoy of hundreds of vehicles snaked toward a pontoon bridge over the Euphrates early Monday, and watchful Marines lay in the sand nearby, M-16s pointed toward the desert. With many Iraqi forces discarding their uniforms in favor of civilian clothes, everyone is suspect, and all thoughts that Saddam's defenders would surrender easily have faded away.

"Clearly they are not a beaten force," said Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "This is going to get a lot harder."

U.S. officials did herald one promising discovery: a suspected chemical factory near Najaf. American forces were chasing down leads from two captured Iraqi generals on possible chemical and biological weapons sites, and following up on a cache of documents found by commandos in western Iraq, Myers said.

U.S. Central Command, which oversees the war in Iraq, said it was premature to call the plant in Najaf a chemical weapons factory. But such a discovery would be a coup for the United States, which says its invasion is meant to rid Iraq of these types of weapons.

President Bush kept his eye on the big prize the removal of Saddam's government and Iraq's eventual disarmament.

"I know that Saddam Hussein is losing control of his country," Bush said Sunday upon his return from the Camp David retreat in Maryland. "We are slowly but surely achieving our objective." He demanded that U.S. prisoners of war be treated humanely.

Also Monday, two marines who died in accidents were identified by the Department of Defense. Lance Cpl. Eric J. Orlowski, 26, of Buffalo, N.Y., was killed when a machine gun accidentally discharged, and Sgt. Nicolas M. Hodson, 22, of Smithville, Mo. was killed in a vehicle accident in Iraq. Both were based in Camp Lejeune, N.C.

photo credit and caption:
Iraq President Saddam Hussein delivers an address in this image from video released on Monday morning March 24, 2003 by Iraqi TV. (AP Photo/Iraqi TV via APTN)

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

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