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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, March 25, 2003

American troops battle elite Iraqi guard soldiers

 •  Hawai'i riveted by nonstop war coverage
 •  Much rides on battle in Iraq's Euphrates Valley
 •  Apaches come under heavy fire
 •  Graphic (opens in new window): Iraqi resistance slows coalition advance

By Geoffrey Mohan and Tracy Wilkinson
Los Angeles Times

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

Troops from Fort Benning, Ga., surround a man stopped for suspicious activity.

Associated Press

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, and members of the 1st Marine Division formed a flank to the east. The U.S. troops were facing three brigades of the guard's prized Medina Division on the other side.

The fighting at the mountain pass came as thousands of U.S. and British forces continued their inexorable march northward to Baghdad in the campaign to drive Saddam Hussein from power. The Iraqi president appeared to be in control of the government yesterday, 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 choke 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 captured.

In London, Prime Minister Tony Blair said the battle of Karbala Gap against defenders of the route to Baghdad was a "crucial moment" in the war. At the Pentagon in Washington, Maj. Gen. Stanley 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 Saddam in 1990 and engaged U.S. troops in one of the largest and most furious tank battles of the Persian Gulf War. U.S. commanders who confronted Medina's heavy armor would come to call that encounter the Battle of Medina Ridge.

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

Four Iraqi missiles were fired at Kuwait, bringing to 10 the total since the war started five days ago. 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.

A woman protects herself from smoke in a Baghdad suburb.

Associated Press

Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke condemned as "despicable" the Iraqi ruses that cost the lives of several of the 17 Americans who were killed Sunday.

"(The Iraqis) are sending forces out carrying white surrender flags or dressing them as liberated civilians to draw coalition forces into ambushes," said Clarke. "Both of these actions are among the most serious violations of the laws of war. Known as perfidy or treachery, such acts are strictly prohibited.

"They make it extraordinarily difficult for coalition forces to accept surrendering forces or protect civilians."

In addition, McChrystal said, Iraqi civilian volunteers trained in combat, known as the Fedayeen Saddam and headed by Saddam's son Odai, might be preventing regular soldiers from surrendering.

"We believe from prisoner-of-war debriefings that the Fedayeen may be ... giving the soldiers a choice of either fighting or being shot in the back if they attempt to surrender," McChrystal said.

The dogged opposition from Saddam loyalists, especially the Fedayeen, dashed initial expectations that the invasion would be smooth and welcomed with adulation. The U.S.-led forces had planned to push their way straight to Baghdad, bypassing cities and towns on the way.

But they left instability in their wake, along with exposure to guerrilla hit-and-run attacks.

Saddam mentioned one example in his speech, referring to Umm al Qasr, Iraq's southern port, where resistance continued for days after the United States called it conquered.

Another example was at Basra, where the British were trading fire with members of Saddam's ruling Baath Party. "Elements of the Iraqi army ... retreated into the city," British Col. Chris Vernon told reporters in Kuwait City.

"There are irregular forces, Baath Party zealots who are attacking us in civilian clothes," Vernon said. "These were the people we fought in Umm Qasr. We're talking about several hundred in Basra."

Securing the port at Umm Qasr is critical to allied efforts to bring humanitarian aid into Iraq for its civilian population. Basra is important to efforts to bring the aid northward.

Paramilitary groups, including the Fedayeen, also are responsible for suppressing unrest among Iraqi civilians, part of Iraq's efforts to quell any antigovernment uprising. Before the war began, there were reports that Saddam might order the use of chemical weapons against his own people.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in an interview yesterday with Fox News, confirmed reports of new information that Ali Hassan al Majid, one of Saddam's cousins, had developed such plans. "We are concerned about it," Powell said. "We will follow this matter carefully."

On the battlefield, the two main military groups leading the march on Baghdad crossed the Euphrates River before halting for the aerial assault on the Republican Guard near the Karbala Gap.

Members of the 3rd Infantry Division formed a flank to the south and west. The 1st Marine Division formed a flank to the east.

Massive convoys of hundreds of tanks, Humvees, howitzers and armored personnel carriers clogged three lanes of Iraq's north-south highway through the area. The Marines posted extra security. They stationed themselves on overpasses, and helicopters escorted their convoys from above.