March 31, 2003
Posted at: 10:45 a.m. CST
UNDATED -- U.S.-led troops fought pitched battles with Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard within 50 miles of the capital Monday as coalition warplanes pounded the city and dozens of other Iraqi positions in advance of the battle for Baghdad. Two U.S. soldiers were killed in fierce fighting for control of the south-central city of Najaf.
In the closest ground fighting yet to Saddam's seat of power in Baghdad, U.S. troops with the 3rd Infantry Division pushed into the Euphrates River town of Hindiyah on Monday. Iraqi soldiers fired from behind brick walls and hedges with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades, and U.S. troops returned fire with 25mm cannon and machine guns.
At least 35 Iraqis were killed and U.S. forces captured several dozen others who identified themselves as members of the Republican Guard — Saddam's best-trained and best-equipped fighters. Their uniforms carried the elite unit's triangular insignia and they said they were with the Nebuchadnezzar Brigade, based in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit.
Iraq remained defiant Monday; in Baghdad, Foreign Minister Naji Sabri questioned the legitimacy of the strikes and called on coalition soldiers to surrender.
"America and Britain have no choice but to surrender and withdraw," Sabri said. "They will not leave our land safe and sound if they continue to be stubborn in their aggression. We will confront them with all we have ... No one will be safe."
"We will turn our deserts into a big graveyard for the Americans and British," he said.
Coalition attacks on leadership and command and control centers in Baghdad were carried out simultaneously by multiple B-1, B-2 and B-52 bombers, according to U.S. Central Command. A 2 a.m. missile strike on the information ministry touched off a fire at the nearby 28 April Shopping Center, named for Saddam's birthday. A telephone office was struck later in the day, Iraqis said.
With constant aerial bombardments on the capital and ground forces advancing from the south, west and north, U.S. military leaders defended the pace of the war effort Sunday, answering criticism that they had underestimated the vigor of Iraqi resistance.
"We have the power to be patient in this, and we're not going to do anything before we're ready," said Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
There is good reason for caution as troops face persistent danger from plainclothes killers and warnings from Iraqi officials that there will be more suicide attacks like the one that killed four Americans on Saturday.
Sabri said more than 5,000 Arabs have come to Iraq to help attack the invaders. Iraqi dissidents and Arab media have claimed that Saddam has opened a training camp for volunteers willing to carry out suicide bombings.
Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, a U.S. Central Command spokesman, said such suicide attacks were "not a very effective military tactic" and would not stop the U.S. advance on Baghdad.
In the north, U.S. aircraft pounded Iraqi positions near the town of Kalak on Monday, aiding Kurdish fighters as they seized territory from Saddam's fleeing troops. Under relentless attack, Iraqi forces could be seen abandoning positions on a ridge west of the Great Zab River.
Far fewer Iraqi troops have been seen along the border of Kurdish-controlled territory in recent days, which could indicate government forces were pulling back toward Mosul, the largest city in northern Iraq.
Iraqi deserters who have sought safety with Kurdish forces say they endured backbreaking toil in Saddam's army and constant scrutiny by security squads. Deserters who are captured face execution. It's not clear how many have crossed over; some say it is close to 500.
"We decided it was either die from an American bomb or be killed by our own people," said one Iraqi foot soldier who staggered into Kalak on Monday. "It was better to run and take our chances."
The deserter — who offered only one name, Ali — said soldiers sleep in muddy burrows, are given meager rations and no information about the war or any chance to call home. There is no medical help; the wounded are left to die. He said morale was very low, and most are not motivated to fight.
"We were not really mad at the Americans," he said. "We just want to save our lives."
In Najaf, two soldiers from the 1st and 2nd brigades of the 101st Airborne Division were killed Monday when Iraqi fighters dressed as civilians opened fire with weapons mounted on vehicles, said Capt. Kenric Bourne of the 101st.
The 2nd brigade is fighting from the north and the 1st is closing in from the south to try to isolate the Shiite Muslim holy city of 300,000 people about 100 miles south of Baghdad.
A day earlier, the Army's 82nd Airborne Division killed about 100 "regime terror squad members" and captured about 50 Iraqi militants in Najaf and another nearby town, Central Command said.
It was unclear whether U.S. forces would try to capture Najaf or just surround it. There are too many Iraqi fighters to bypass them or leave them unattended; they are a danger to supply lines on the way to Baghdad.
Coalition forces also are leery of damaging Najaf's holy shrines, which could anger Shiites in Iraq and elsewhere, most notably Iran.
In the southern city of Nasiriyah, where fighting has been fierce for a week, Marines on Sunday secured buildings held by an Iraqi infantry division that contained large caches of weapons and chemical decontamination equipment.
Also Sunday, a Marine UH-1 Huey helicopter crashed at a refueling point in southern Iraq, killing three aboard, said spokesman 1st Lt. John Niemann.
In Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, British forces continued to skirmish with militiamen loyal to Saddam. As many as 1,000 Royal Marines and supporting troops destroyed a bunker and several tanks in a commando assault Sunday. About 30 Iraqis were captured and an unknown number were killed. One Royal Marine was killed in the assault.
Brooks, the Central Command spokesman, said residents of Basra were providing information about Saddam loyalists in the city, but there were still areas "under the boot of the Iraqi regime."
"We wouldn't say that Basra is completely under coalition control," he said.
British forces also discovered a cache of arms and explosives at a school in the southern port city of Umm Qasr. Australian mine clearance experts were called to dismantle the weaponry Monday, Australian defense spokesman Brigadier Mike Hannan said.
Australian divers also are working to clear a sunken boat loaded with mines discovered near the grain terminal in Umm Qasr, Hannan said.
Umm Qasr, Iraq's only deep-water port, is an important conduit for humanitarian aid and military supplies, but shipments have been delayed because of fears that waters may be mined.
In London, British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon said about 8,000 Iraqis are being held as prisoners of war — twice then number reported last week.