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March 21, 2003
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U.S., U.K. Forces Seize S. Iraq Villages
Advancing U.S., British Forces Seize Towns In Southern Iraq; Two Marines Die in Fighting

The Associated Press

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SAFWAN, Iraq March 21

U.S. and British forces took over the town of Safwan in southern Iraq and the strategic Gulf port of Umm Qasr as ground forces pushed farther into Iraq, military officials said.

Umm Qasr, 20 kilometers (12 miles) southeast of Safwan, was quiet Friday night, with no signs of resistance as thousands of coalition troops dug in around the city of 45,000 people. Few civilians were visible in Umm Qasr's center, but lights were on in apartment buildings.

Adm. Michael Boyce, chief of the British defense staff, told a London news conference that U.S. Marines had seized full control of the city.

"Umm Qasr has been overwhelmed by the U.S. Marines and now is in coalition hands," he said. "This port is a vital objective. ... It's going to become one of our main ways of getting humanitarian aid, hopefully within days ... into Iraq."

The Pentagon confirmed Umm Qasr's capture.

The ground attack on Umm Qasr followed a night of intense shelling by U.S. and British forces. Two U.S. marines were killed Friday, the U.S. Central Command said, bringing the number of allied combat deaths to 14.

The capture of Umm Qasr will be useful for moving military supplies, and control of the city will likely speed the clearing of Iraqi resistance in the south. British minesweepers must clear a safe sea route to Umm Qasr before cargo ships can enter the port, Boyce said. Part of Umm Qasr, about 460 kilometers (290 miles) southeast of Baghdad, was given to Kuwait under agreements the United Nations brokered at the 1991 Gulf War.

In Baghdad, a barrage of mighty explosives crashed down Friday, sending enormous fireballs and clouds of smoke billowing high into the night sky. Some two hours later, the distinct sound of aircraft could be heard over the capital for the first time since the start of the attack, and a huge fire raged south of the city.

British and U.S. officials said their forces were dealing with hundreds of Iraqi troops who had surrendered in southern portions of the country.

Boyce also said U.S. and British forces were on the outskirts of Basra, southern Iraq's largest city.

In the Safwan area, 40 to 50 Iraqi soldiers surrendered to a U.S. Marine traffic control unit.

They came down the road in the open back of a troop vehicle, their hands in the air for about a mile (more than a kilometer) before they reached the marines.

U.S. Marines from the 3rd Battalion 7th Marine Infantry faced little resistance on their way into Safwan. Tanks attached to the battalion attacked five Iraqi tanks just north of the Kuwait border, easily destroying them.

Except for the destruction near the border, the town of stone buildings appeared nearly untouched by the shelling, artillery fire and helicopter-launched missiles shot over the border by U.S. forces before the marines crossed into Iraq.

Electric power lines and telephone lines remained standing, untouched.

Marines hauled down images of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in a screeching pop of metal and bolts, rigging winch chains to the giant street portraits in newly taken southern Iraq.

As the convoy of Amtracks, HumVees and tanks traveled through town, marines manning 50-caliber machine guns atop hardback HumVees scanned the surrounding area for possible snipers.

U.S. forces later took control of positions mostly abandoned by Iraq's 32 Mechanized Infantry Brigade, blowing up a few abandoned tanks and armored personnel carriers and engaging in short firefights with a few Iraqi soldiers who stayed back to defend the 32nd's headquarters and barracks or were unable to flee in time.

After nightfall Friday, American forces set off flares above the airport, port and former U.N. installations, apparently to light the areas so they could see whether there was any activity there. All appeared quiet, although machine-gun fire was audible in the distance.

Soldiers rested on HumVees and tanks in the desert outside the city and seemed in good spirits. Some asked journalists to send greetings to their families at home.

Australian forces intercepted an Iraqi patrol boat filled with about 60 sea mines and other military equipment in the area of Khawr Abd Allah, a stretch of water in the approach to Umm Qasr, Australian officials said.

British officials said the oil infrastructure at Umm Qasr was not destroyed by Iraqi troops.

photo credit and caption:
U.S. Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, take firing position hearing the sound of gunfire in southern Iraq Friday, March, 21, 2003. (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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