Blasts Rock Iraq Again

March 27, 2003
Posted at: 2:34 p.m. CST

NEAR KARBALA, Iraq - British and U.S. warplanes flew more than 600 bombing missions as skies cleared over Iraq on Thursday, blasting Iraqi light armor as the U.S.-led troops resumed their advance toward Baghdad.

In the Kurdish-controlled north, about 1,000 U.S. army and special forces troops parachuted into an air base to open a new front against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. To the south, British forces destroyed 14 Iraqi tanks trying to break out of Basra on Thursday morning.

In Baghdad, Iraqi military spokesman Gen. Hazem al-Rawi said Republican Guards killed "huge numbers of the enemy" and destroyed six armored vehicles in battles in southern Iraq.

"I can confirm that the enemy was not able to achieve the minimum of its objectives," he said.

Near the southern city of Basra, British troops battled an Iraqi column of tanks intent on attacking forces surrounding Iraq's second-largest city. "We've come up against some stiff opposition," British Air Marshal Brian Burridge said in Qatar.

He said later that many of the destroyed vehicles were manned by conscripts and regular army troops who had been rounded up by paramilitary forces loyal to Saddam to keep them from deserting.

Burridge said British forces attacked 11 Iraqi mortar positions and some T-55 tanks during fighting around the city, which coalition troops have sought for days now to secure. He urged patience, saying Iraqi paramilitary forces were still in Basra.

Speaking in London, Adm. Michael Boyce, chief of the British defense staff, said U.S. and British forces destroyed 14 Iraqi T-55 tanks.

British military officials said Iraqi forces have made at least three attempts to break out of Basra, where food, water and medical supplies are running low and aid agencies fear a humanitarian crisis could be looming for the city's 1.3 million residents.

Hundreds of refugees were reported to have poured out of Basra. British soldiers said some civilians who fled had complained they and their children were injured by the Iraqi fighters.

At U.S. Central Command headquarters in Doha, Qatar, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said some Marines were injured in a 90-minute battle near the southern city of An Nasiriyah but gave no further details. Reports said more than 30 Marines were injured in friendly fire incidents.

Brooks said Thursday that U.S. units battled Iraqi forces, including Republican Guard units, destroying vehicles and inflicting casualties.

Fighting has persisted around Najaf, north of An Nasiriyah, compelling elements of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division to encircle the city about 90 miles south of Baghdad, instead of driving northward.

Iraqi Defense Minister Sultan Hashem Ahmed claimed Thursday that U.S. forces had retreated from Najaf, after Iraqi troops destroyed several tanks and inflicted heavy casualties.

"The siege of Najaf has been ended and the enemy has withdrawn from around the city," Ahmed told a news conference in Baghdad.

A military spokesman on Iraqi TV reported Thursday evening that an Apache helicopter was downed in the Middle Euphrates region in south-central Iraq and that an unmanned drone aircraft was downed in the Basra area.

There was no immediate confirmation from coalition forces about a downed helicopter and drone or a withdrawal of U.S. forces around Najaf.

On Thursday, a CH-46 Marine transport helicopter was fired on by Iraqis with small arms and rocket propelled grenades and turned back after trying to pick up casualties and deliver supplies to Marines in An Nasiriyah.

"There are a lot of forces out there that still want to fight. They didn't exactly roll over and surrender," said a Marine helicopter pilot who gave only his nickname, Lurch. "We are so wrapped up in not creating collateral damage that we are leaving great enemy strongholds behind."

At Tallil airfield, 4 miles outside An Nasiriyah, an American aircraft landed Thursday as the U.S military sought to establish a major supply and transport hub at Iraq's second-largest airfield. Tallil sits astride a major logistics corridor for U.S. forces that runs from Kuwait toward Baghdad.

Near Karbala to the north of Tallil, small groups of Iraqi armored personnel carriers — from three to six vehicles — probed U.S. defenses. When the Iraqis closed to within 10 miles, coalition warplanes blasted them.

Lt. Col. B.P. McCoy, commanding officer of the U.S. Marines 3rd Battery, 4th Regiment, said the U.S.-led troops were moving toward Baghdad, still some 50 miles away, after being stalled by sandstorms one day earlier. He said troops expected to continue meeting Iraqi resistance.

In Washington, defense officials said U.S.-led forces flew more than 600 bombing missions Thursday, hitting Republican Guard formations around the capital.

In northern Iraq, the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade, including elite Army Rangers, jumped out of low-flying C-17 transport planes under cover of darkness Wednesday and secured a snow-dusted airfield, which will be used to bring in supplies and support personnel. The airdrop into the Kurdish autonomous zone was the first large coalition ground force in the region.

So far only small groups of U.S. Special Forces had been operating with allied Kurdish troops, with troops firing on Iraqi military forces and other strategic targets from the air.

Future airlifts into the area will include supplies and support personnel for the 173rd's fighters, defense officials said. The airfield's 6,700-foot runway is long enough to land C-17s and other U.S. military cargo planes.

"This tightens the noose against Saddam's forces battling coalition forces to the south," Brig. Gen. James Parker, commander of U.S. forces in the north. "And it may also serve as a warning to Turkish forces."

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