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Key Battle Begins Near Baghdad

U.S. Forces Confront Hussein's Ultra-Loyal Republican Guard

March 25, 2003|Geoffrey Mohan and Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writers

WITH U.S. FORCES IN IRAQ — U.S. Army troops confronted thousands of Republican Guard soldiers Monday across the strategic Karbala Gap, just 60 miles south of Baghdad, in what American and British officials called one of the most crucial -- and perilous -- encounters so far in the war.

U.S. B-52 bombers and Apache helicopters attacked Republican Guard positions to the north of the gap to weaken them before the battle for Baghdad, while the 2nd Brigade of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division spread across high desert to the south and west of the gap, facing three brigades of the guard's prized Medina Division on the other side.

The fighting at the mountain pass came as thousands of troops, tanks and guns stretching for 30 miles rolled northward toward Baghdad in the campaign to drive Saddam Hussein from power. The Iraqi president appeared to be in control of the government Monday, with an appearance on television, touted as live, in which he vowed that "victory will soon be ours."

The Iraqis sent an armored column south toward the gap near Karbala, a Shiite Muslim holy city and strangle point for troops advancing on Baghdad. Allied planes destroyed 10 of the tanks and several other armored vehicles. U.S. commanders said the air support pushed the Iraqi column back.

A U.S. helicopter was forced down during heavy fighting near Karbala, the U.S. Central Command said in Doha, Qatar, and its two-man crew was missing. Iraqi TV showed the two men, and the Pentagon listed them as prisoners of war -- the sixth and seventh Americans to be captured by the Iraqis.

In London, Prime Minister Tony Blair said the battle of Karbala Gap against defenders of the route to Baghdad was a "crucial moment." At the Pentagon, Maj. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, vice director for operations at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said fighting the Republican Guard propels the war into a far more dangerous phase.

The Medina Division invaded Kuwait for Hussein in 1990 and engaged U.S. troops in one of the largest and most furious tank battles of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. U.S. commanders who confronted Medina's heavy armor would come to call that encounter the Battle of Medina Ridge.

In Hussein's latest television appearance, his references to the shape of the war so far suggested that the remarks were current. But in London, British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon insisted that the broadcast wasn't live, adding Britain had learned that Hussein had taped several messages and might air more in the future.

In Baghdad, Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Said Sahaf said 62 civilians had been killed across Iraq in 24 hours by U.S. and British troops, missiles and bombs. He said hundreds more had been injured. In an indication that battle was drawing near, huge bomb explosions erupted in the eastern and southern suburbs.

From Baghdad south, where two days of sandstorms were forecast, U.S. and British forces faced assaults from paramilitary forces loyal to Hussein. A sniper killed a U.S. soldier near the town of Najaf, and a British Royal Marine died as he tried to calm a riot farther to the south near Basra, Iraq's second-largest city.

Resistance persisted at Nasiriyah, as Iraqis fired at U.S. troops with machine guns. Some of the Iraqis wore military uniforms, but others were in civilian clothes. One oil well burned. U.S. forces dropped bombs and fired mortars into the town throughout Monday night, killing several Iraqis. About two dozen surrendered.

Seven of the Marines killed in fierce fighting Sunday at Nasiriyah were identified Monday by the Pentagon. They included three Californians: Sgt. Michael E. Bitz, 31, of Ventura; Cpl. Jose A. Garibay, 21, of Orange; and Cpl. Jorge A. Gonzalez, 20, of Los Angeles.

Four Iraqi missiles were fired Monday at Kuwait, bringing to 10 the total since the war started Thursday. Two of the missiles, fired in the night, glowed orange in the sky, and one at midday boomed over Kuwait City. All four were destroyed by U.S. Patriot missiles.

To the west, bombs from a U.S. jet hit a bus carrying civilian workers to neighboring Syria, killing five and injuring 10. McChrystal said the pilot was aiming at the bridge. "[The] bus came into the pilot's view," he said, "but [it was] too late to recall the weapons."

Crewmen on Iraqi TV

The helicopter downed near Karbala was an AH-64 Apache gunship returning from a mission to attack the Republican Guard. Iraq's television footage of the men showed two people in beige flight suits. Neither spoke, and both appeared frightened.

Reporters with U.S.-led troops said at least 30 other helicopters in the operation were hit by small-arms fire.

Iraqi officials claimed that the Apache was shot down by farmers, and Iraqi television showed a group of dancing men celebrating by waving carbines and Kalashnikov assault rifles.

U.S. officials, however, said the farmers had not shot the helicopter, which appeared to be undamaged, as if it had set down, perhaps after experiencing mechanical failure.

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