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WAR WITH IRAQ / AIR AND GROUND | Hundreds of Hussein's
Soldiers Are Killed in Intense Fighting South of Baghdad

Troops Battle Sandstorm, Iraqis

Foul weather stalls the push toward the capital and waiting Republican Guard unit. But President Bush cites a 'steady advance.'

March 26, 2003|Tony Perry and David Wharton | Times Staff Writers

WITH U.S. FORCES IN IRAQ — As gritty, blinding sandstorms slowed U.S. and British forces to a crawl on their march toward Baghdad, soldiers of the U.S. Army's 7th Cavalry killed several hundred Iraqi troops during a fierce firefight Tuesday near the town of Najaf in central Iraq, the Pentagon said.

Iraqis struck the cavalry regiment with rocket-propelled grenades and antitank missiles, defense officials said, disabling two Abrams tanks and hitting a Bradley fighting vehicle. Using thermal imaging devices to aim through the flying sand, the 7th Cavalry fired 25-millimeter guns and pushed across the Euphrates River.

No U.S. casualties were reported, defense officials said. Estimates of the Iraqi death toll ranged from 150 to 500 troops. Early reports said the Iraqis were on foot, perhaps a military unit from the town of Al Kut. But the officials said they also could have been regular army or members of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard.

It was a day of fighting across Iraq. British forces mounted an assault to gain control of Basra in the south amid reports of insurrection in the country's second-largest city. The offensive was aimed at opening a way to bring in water and food for residents. British sources said they found Iraqi war gear that included gas masks.

In the southern city of Nasiriyah, U.S. Marines took over a hospital and confiscated 3,000 Iraqi chemical protection suits and masks, as well as what appeared to be a cache of atropine, used in cases of chemical poisoning. Marine Lt. Col. Royal Mortenson said they captured 270 Iraqi fighters and 200 weapons.

Early today, U.S. warplanes struck the state-run television station in Baghdad. Flames and smoke billowed out. Afterward, the station broadcast without sound, showing shaky old footage praising Hussein. Before, it had carried a message it said was from Hussein to clan leaders urging them to fight the coalition for "faith and jihad."

Uncounted Iraqis have been killed and more than 3,500 captured in the war to drive Hussein from power and disarm his nation. U.S. defense officials said thousands of Iraqis have deserted. Twenty U.S. troops have been killed and 14 have been captured or reported missing.

After receiving an update Tuesday from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his generals at the Pentagon, President Bush told reporters: "Our coalition is on a steady advance. We cannot know the duration of this war. Yet we know its outcome: We will prevail.

"The Iraqi regime will be ended. The Iraqi people will be free. And our world will be more secure and peaceful."

The sandstorms, expected to blow for two days, dramatically slowed the U.S. and British advance at the Karbala Gap, just 60 miles south of Baghdad. Beyond the gap, located in mountains near the town of Karbala, the Medina Division of the Republican Guard stood between the allies and the Iraqi capital.

After first slowing and then merely inching forward, the U.S. 1st Marine Division and the Army's 3rd Infantry Division ground to a halt in the area. Troops were ordered to stay inside their vehicles overnight to avoid getting lost in the blowing sand. But early today, after strong wind and rain, the Marines rolled on.

"It's been a real annoyance, but I wouldn't call it a setback," said Col. Robert Knapp, commander of the 1st Marine Division's Headquarters Battalion. "It may have slowed our pace, but we're still attacking. Our orders are to get to Baghdad as expeditiously as possible, and that's what we're doing."

U.S. intelligence agencies believe the Republican Guard might use chemical weapons as coalition forces approach the capital, Rumsfeld said. But he said he did not know whether the agencies' information is correct. Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said U.S. forces have plans "to deal with that."

Myers said the Republican Guard appears to be tightly deployed around Baghdad. That, he said, is "where the difficult task begins."

To the south, conditions in Basra appeared chaotic.

During the opening days of the war, coalition forces had bypassed the city as they rolled north. But they then found themselves under attack from the rear.

On Tuesday, the British moved on Basra from the north, west and south and engaged in fierce battles with about 1,000 Iraqi paramilitary fighters and a re-formed contingent of the Iraqi 51st Mechanized Division.

The division had disintegrated as a fighting unit during an early skirmish as allied forces rolled past, and some soldiers had fled into the city with tanks and armored vehicles.

A reconstituted unit of the 51st, augmented by Fedayeen Saddam guerrillas loyal to Hussein, used those weapons to fire on the British on Tuesday, reportedly killing two of them.

During the fighting, U.S. F/A-18 warplanes dropped satellite-guided bombs into downtown Basra, aimed at military sites hidden in civilian buildings.

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