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WAR WITH IRAQ / AIR AND GROUND

Allies Seize on a Break in Weather

With a major battle shaping up south of Baghdad, warplanes strike at the capital's defenses. Military commanders redraw their plans, and President Bush refuses to set a timetable.

March 28, 2003|Geoffrey Mohan, Jeffrey Fleishman and Paul Watson | Times Staff Writers

WITH U.S. FORCES IN IRAQ — A ferocious two-day sandstorm broke Thursday, allowing U.S. warplanes to swing back into heavy action over central Iraq and giving a boost to ground troops who had bogged down on the road to Baghdad. The capital was shaken by some of the strongest explosions of the war, but its leaders remained defiant.

Iraqi officials said they expect Baghdad to be encircled in five to 10 days but predicted the campaign to unseat President Saddam Hussein will founder there.

Lead elements of the U.S. 1st Marine Division and the Army's 3rd Infantry Division are pointed at Baghdad's southern flank, where the Medina Division of the Iraqi Republican Guard is arrayed, as the two sides steel for what is likely to be the major battle of this conflict.

With the invasion of Iraq entering its second week and Hussein apparently still in power, President Bush said that the war will continue for "however long it takes."

"This isn't a matter of timetable -- it's a matter of victory," the president said. "And the Iraqi people have got to know that. They have got to know that they will be liberated and Saddam Hussein will be removed, no matter how long it takes."

There was some movement forward Thursday. A northern front began to take shape as U.S. paratroopers moved into position in Kurdish-controlled territory and the first Iraqi lines collapsed.

And U.S.-led forces in central Iraq pounded Iraqi positions in and around the city of Najaf. They also fought near the southern city of Nasiriyah for a fifth day and along key supply routes that form the spine of the allied advance on Baghdad.

But throughout the combat theater, military commanders scrambled to readjust their battlefield plan. U.S. and British forces continued to encounter unexpectedly stiff resistance in parts of southern Iraq.

While the weather had been blamed for delays in the charge toward Baghdad, some of those on the front lines acknowledged that the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division may have advanced too rapidly and needed to hold up.

Military planners said they had anticipated none of the resistance in cities such as Nasiriyah and Najaf. They had intended to bypass population centers, concentrate on severing the central government, and then await surrenders from smaller commands.

"I honestly think they had us move so fast because they thought it'd be a fast collapse," said Capt. Steven Barry, commander of "Cyclone" Company in the Army's 4th Battalion, 64th Armored Regiment. "Now that they realize it's not going to be a fast collapse, they've decided to slow down and be more deliberate."

Half a hemisphere away in Landstuhl, Germany, where the wounded from the fierce fighting around Nasiriyah are being treated, U.S. soldiers described their shock at the resistance that greeted them.

"We were very surprised," Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua Menard said. "We were told as we were going through Nasiriyah that there would be little to no resistance."

He and other members of his battalion said they had been led to expect scenes of mass Iraqi surrenders like those during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Instead, "when we got in, it was a whole different ballgame," recalled Menard, 21. "They weren't rolling over like we thought they would."

The military announced no new combat deaths, but the family of Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Vann Johnson Jr., a corpsman, said in Arkansas that he had been killed by a grenade Tuesday while tending to wounded soldiers in Iraq.

The Washington Post reported in today's editions that nine U.S. Marines killed in Nasiriyah on Sunday may have been the victims of "friendly fire," not enemy artillery. Eleven Marines were killed in the battle. The Post cited an unidentified source as saying preliminary indications suggest that nine of them may have been hit by fire from an A-10 Warthog flying air support.

Supply-line problems added to the rigors facing forward units of U.S. troops, now within 50 miles of Baghdad. Attacks on U.S.-British convoys and two days of sandstorms and foggy weather had slowed the delivery of badly needed supplies of food, water, ammunition and spare vehicle parts.

In at least one Marine unit, "meals ready to eat" were being rationed at just one a day because of short supplies. Some damaged helicopters were kept grounded by a lack of spare parts.

U.S. commanders predicted that improved weather today would speed the convoys and allow for the more efficient stockpiling of supplies where the forward troops could use them.

One such forward base opened Thursday after being captured by U.S. forces Saturday. A C-130 supply plane landed at an airfield in Tallil, just outside Nasiriyah, bringing the first of many planned shipments of materiel and troops, the Associated Press reported. Wags posted a sign reading: "Bush International Airport."

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