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U.S. Marines storm town

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SHATRA, Iraq (Reuters) - U.S. Marines have launched a dawn raid on the town of Shatra, north of Nassiriya, aiming to kill senior Iraqi officials they believe are directing guerrilla attacks, Reuters correspondent Sean Maguire has reported.

Among those targeted was Ali Hassan al-Majeed, or "Chemical Ali", the cousin whom President Saddam Hussein has put in charge of the southern front. Majeed earned his nickname for overseeing the use of poison gas against Kurdish villagers in 1988.

The Marines were storming the town, about 35 km (20 miles) north of the city of Nassiriya, with warplanes dropping precision-guided bombs, helicopter gunships and tanks.

Marine officers said they had intelligence from anti-Saddam Iraqis that Majeed was in Shatra with other senior officials in Saddam's Baath party who were coordinating paramilitary forces that have ambushed U.S. supply convoys and slowed the advance on Baghdad.

Maguire said the Marine unit he was with had retraced its steps back south down Highway 7 to Shatra, to deal with hostile forces that had been bypassed on their rapid advance.

"U.S. planes dropped precision-guided bombs on four targets in Shatra," Maguire said in a dispatch as the battle went on. "Tanks and armoured personnel carriers then moved in force to the edge of the town while Huey helicopter gunships raked the rubble-strewn target sites with heavy machinegun fire."

The targets in Shatra were the local Baath party headquarters and "associated planning sites", Marine officers said.

"We believe there are about 200 to 300 Baath party loyalists and Saddam Fedayeen irregulars in the town," said Marine company commander Captain Mike Martin.

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