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Allies, Iraqis Clash in Streets of Three Cities

British commandos report killing several officers in Basra and plan to enter downtown soon. Three Marines die in a helicopter crash.

March 31, 2003|David Zucchino and Geoffrey Mohan | Times Staff Writers

WITH U.S. FORCES IN IRAQ — U.S. and British troops flushed out paramilitary fighters street by street in three cities of central and southern Iraq on Sunday as warplanes hammered the Republican Guard surrounding Baghdad and American soldiers inched to within sight of Karbala, a gateway to the capital.

An American military helicopter crashed in the south, killing three Marines and injuring another, the Pentagon said. A military spokesman said the UH-1 Iroquois helicopter, known as a Huey, went down for undetermined reasons just after sunset near a military base and was not under hostile fire.

Elsewhere on the 11th day of the war, allied forces foiled an apparent suicide-bombing attempt near Najaf, about 90 miles south of Baghdad, and mounted urban firefights against paramilitary forces in Najaf and Nasiriyah, as well as in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, to defeat irregular forces who have ambushed and harassed them.

During an overnight raid into southern Basra, British commandos reportedly killed several Iraqi officers. One British Royal Marine was killed in the operation, code-named after the fictional British secret agent James Bond. And on the northern front, airstrikes forced Iraqi troops to pull back into the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul.

In Baghdad, airstrikes persisted throughout Sunday and early today. Bombs and missiles hit command centers, a telecommunications exchange, an intelligence complex in the Karada district, and the Abu Ghraib presidential palace, which reportedly belongs to Qusai Hussein, one of Saddam Hussein's two sons.

A residential area was struck Sunday evening, the Arab satellite news station Al Jazeera said. There was no immediate confirmation of the report.

In the move toward Karbala, the 2nd Brigade of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division swept into the town of Hindiya, to the southeast, at dawn today and encountered Iraqi forces at a bridge over the Euphrates River. Armored troops drew sporadic fire from paramilitary and regular Iraqi forces.

The Americans captured several dozen Iraqis and wounded others. The attack sent residents of Hindiya, which has a population of about 100,000, fleeing down streets and alleys.

It brought the 3rd Infantry Division within sight of Karbala and a chokepoint known as Karbala Gap, between Razzaza Lake and the Euphrates, as U.S.-led forces paused to let bombs and missiles pound three divisions of the Republican Guard standing across the gap between them and Baghdad.

U.S. and British fighter jets bombed the Medina, Baghdad and Hammurabi divisions more than 500 times Sunday, a U.S. Air Force spokesman said.

As the bombs fell, artillery units struck Karbala, a Shiite Muslim holy city of about 549,000, throughout the afternoon and launched rockets that arced across the sky. Smoke rose on the outskirts of the city.

Infantry units clearing a route into Karbala encountered white flags raised over outlying settlements and scores of surrendering soldiers and refugees holding their hands over their heads.

As the 3rd Infantry Division moved closer to Karbala, an estimated 1,000 to 1,400 paramilitary fighters were holed up in the city, along with elements of the Medina Division, according to a U.S. intelligence captain.

Infantry commanders expected fighting in Karbala to be intense.

Col. Michael Linnington, commander of the 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, said allied air attacks had "degraded" the Medina Division to about 50% of its strength.

But other intelligence estimates put the Medina at 70% strength.

In central Iraq, the 101st Airborne encountered what appeared to be a car carrying suicide bombers Sunday on the outskirts of Najaf, a Shiite holy city with 563,000 residents.

Four U.S. soldiers had been killed the day before at a checkpoint near Najaf when an Iraqi officer in a taxi motioned for help, then blew himself up, along with the car.

In Sunday's encounter, a car approached a U.S. checkpoint along a road outside the city. This time, airborne commanders said, American troops spotted three armed men inside and called in a mortar attack. One round destroyed the car and killed the men.

To protect supply and communications lines for the 3rd Infantry Division at Karbala, two infantry brigades of the 101st Airborne mounted a street-to-street sweep in the outskirts of Najaf.

Linnington said the brigades took several hundred Iraqis into custody, captured caches of small arms and sealed off the city.

"A couple hundred" Iraqi irregulars were still inside, Linnington said, although other American estimates put the number as high as 1,000.

At dawn today, some reportedly tried to break out of the city but came under fire from artillery and U.S. helicopter gunships.

There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Linnington said the two 101st infantry brigades, numbering about 8,000 men, planned to strike at the irregulars sporadically, quickly and efficiently but avoid going deeply into Najaf to engage in protracted street fights.

Seizing Najaf is not the goal, he said.

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