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WAR WITH IRAQ/ AIR AND GROUND

As U.S. Troops Push Ahead, Up to 17 Die, 5 Are Captured

Some Americans are drawn into traps. A man Iraqi officials say is Hussein urges his nation to 'strike them, and strike evil.'

March 24, 2003|Tony Perry and Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writers

WITH U.S. FORCES IN IRAQ — Iraqis captured their first American soldiers Sunday, and U.S. forces suffered their heaviest losses yet as they pushed to within 100 miles of the doorstep to Baghdad.

Early today, as American troops renewed their advance toward the Iraqi capital, they traded heavy artillery fire with the Republican Guard, apparently for the first time, while airstrikes pounded the city for the fifth straight day.

In the most dispiriting U.S. setback, at least five Americans were seized and as many as 17 killed in separate incidents, the most U.S. casualties suffered on any single day of the war. U.S. commanders described some of the incidents as "ruses" that lured the Americans into captivity and death.

Meanwhile, U.S. and British troops pressed their march to engage head-on with the Republican Guard in and around Baghdad, probably within days, and warplanes pounded Iraqi units south of the capital. U.S. forces bombarded Tikrit, north of Baghdad, the hometown of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and one of his most significant bases of power.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 25, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Military aircraft -- An article on the war in Iraq in Monday's Section A incorrectly described Air Force A-10s and AC-130s as helicopters. The A-10 is an attack jet and the AC-130 is a special model of the C-130 Hercules cargo plane that is used as an aerial gunship.

Shortly after 11 a.m today, a man identified as Hussein by Iraqi officials appeared on national television to exhort troops to fight the invaders. "Cut their throats," he urged. "They have come to occupy your land.... Strike, strike them, and strike evil, so evil will be defeated.... God is great. Long live Iraq."

Both in Nasiriyah, in southeastern Iraq, and in the southern port of Umm al Qasr, fighting continued Sunday long after the Pentagon said both cities were in coalition hands -- evidence that opposition was greater than expected. "It's the toughest day of resistance we've had so far," Army Lt. Gen. John Abizaid told reporters.

In Washington, President Bush cautioned that there might be no quick finish to the war. "This is just the beginning of a tough fight," he said. "It's going to take a while to achieve our objective. But we're on course, we're determined, and we're making good progress."

The worst reversal came with the ambush of a six-vehicle supply convoy southeast of Nasiriyah after the lead driver apparently took a wrong turn and wandered far from his division combat forces.

A rescue team caught up with the convoy, beat back its attackers and retrieved survivors. But 12 soldiers were reported missing.

A short time later, Iraqi television showed the bodies of what appeared to be American soldiers, bloodied and their clothes torn, sprawled on the floor of a makeshift morgue. The name of one was visible on his shirt pocket. The dog tags of another rested on his chest.

One had a gaping wound in his forehead.

The broadcast showed interviews with four dazed men and one woman, all in uniform, two of them bandaged. They spoke in American-accented English and identified themselves as members of a logistics team, the 507th Maintenance Company, based at Ft. Bliss, Texas.

The Iraqi television presenter said they were captured near Nasiriyah.

U.S. officials confirmed that prisoners had been taken, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said in Washington that if American prisoners were shown on television, then "those pictures are a violation of the Geneva Conventions."

"It is illegal to do things to POWs that are humiliating," Rumsfeld said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

The Iraqi television footage also was broadcast on Al Jazeera, the Qatari-based satellite network popular in the Arab world.

The voice of an Iraqi asked: "Why did you come?"

A young, pale private first class, who said he was from Kansas, darted his eyes around the room. "I was told to come here," he said. "I just follow orders."

"You've come to kill Iraqi people?"

"I'm told to shoot only if I'm shot at," the private responded nervously. "They shot at me first, so I shoot back. I don't want to kill anybody."

The Iraqi then tried to interview another soldier, lying on the floor and covered with blood. He cradled the man's head toward a microphone so that the soldier could answer questions. The soldier appeared to be in pain.

At the White House, where he returned after spending the weekend at Camp David, Bush demanded that Iraq treat any U.S. prisoners of war humanely. Any Iraqis who mistreat American captives, he said, "will be treated as war criminals."

Speaking somberly and with great deliberation, the president said he and his wife had prayed earlier in the day for all the U.S.-led troops, especially those who had lost their lives.

"We pray for their families," Bush said. "We ask God's comfort for those who mourn today. And we thank all the coalition forces for their bravery and courage in Operation Iraqi Freedom. I say to the families ... I thank them for the sacrifice they make, and we pray with them."

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