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Enemy in plain clothes distracts convoy

©Associated Press

March 23, 2003

HIGHWAY 80 IN SOUTHERN IRAQ -- Allied forces crossed the Euphrates River and were halfway to Baghdad on Saturday, their advance barely slowed by lingering resistance in the cities of Basra and Umm Qasr.

Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said forces had moved 150 miles into Iraqi territory.

In the southern city of Basra, they faced artillery and machine-gun fire. So rather than risk a bloody urban battlefield in a city of 2-million, the allies took what they needed -- an airport and a bridge -- and moved on, leaving British forces behind.

Skirmishes -- sometimes with stiff resistance -- took place at the front end of the advance. Iraqi state television reported fighting between Iraqi ruling Baath party militias and U.S.-British forces near the Shiite holy city of Najaf, 95 miles south of Baghdad. It said the top Baath party official in Najaf was killed.

U.S. Army infantry engaged a daylong battle with Iraqi troops at the city of As-Samawah, downriver from Najaf and 150 miles south of Baghdad, as the Americans seized two bridges across a canal near the Euphrates' southern bank.

Iraqi fire forced the Americans to pull back from the bridges for a time, until they called in a barrage of artillery fire and secured the crossings, an Army Times correspondent with the unit reported. Forty Iraqi soldiers were killed, but continued firing slowed the Americans' advance Saturday evening.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Army's V Corps took Nasiriyah, another major crossing point over the Euphrates northwest of Basra.

Further south, coalition troops were trying in Umm Qasr faced street-to-street fighting against guerrillas as they tried to secure the city for humanitarian shipments.

"It's easy to sit in a window and fire a rifle," said Lt. Col. Chris Vernon, a British military spokesman. He said some had changed into civilian clothing to blend in with the population and take advantage of allied desire to minimize civilian casualties.

A dozen miles north of Umm Qasr, Marines engaged a couple of Iraqi tanks and light armored vehicles.

Echo company's 1st Platoon of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit saw action when it tried to clear bunkers near Umm Qasr.

"There was smoke everywhere. It's our first time in Iraq, and you see these four guys walking toward you with their hands up. We knew they were surrendering," said platoon leader Lt. William Todd Jacobs, 24, of Cincinnati.

"But then somebody shouts, 'There's two in the hole! There's two in the hole!"' Jacobs said.

The Marines shot both, then threw in a grenade that blew a plume of sand and black smoke out of the bunker.

Four F/A-18 Hornets from the USS Kitty Hawk's Golden Dragons squadron reported dropping seven laser-guided bombs on artillery pieces at Al-Qurnah, north of Basra, in support of the advancing 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said Lt. j.g. Nicole Kratzer, spokeswoman for the ship's air wing.

At Az Zubayr, near Basra, U.S. Marines and Iraqi forces battled through the night, leaving husks of Iraqi military trucks along the road.

One charred flatbed truck, windows gone and tires reduced to black dust, was left smoking. The hundreds of Kalashnikov rifles it carried were broken into pieces, their wood stocks shattered, their magazine clips strewn about the road.

The truck's batteries had already been removed by looters.

Farther down, the road was blocked by a truck that had been hauling an artillery piece until a tank shell crushed it. another truck was in flames, its driver mostly burned to ashes.

The Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Regiment engaged Iraq's 32 Mechanized Infantry Brigade, or at least what was left of it -- according to the Marines, 60 percent of the brigade had deserted before the Americans even got there.

The remainder, about 300 men, fought from room to room in pockets of a dozen each against Marines scouring their barracks and headquarters.

Hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles lined Highway 80 -- the road to Basra, nicknamed the "Highway of Death" during the 1991 Gulf War when U.S. airstrikes wiped out an Iraqi military convoy fleeing Kuwait.

The roadside was dotted with Iraqi tanks blackened by direct hits on their dirt bunkers. White flags flew over some deserted, dilapidated barracks, including one where a white cloth had been hung over a picture of Saddam Hussein.

At one of the barracks, Iraqis emerged to surrender, stumbling across a rutted field clutching bags of belongings. As Marines moved toward them, the Iraqis knelt in the field with their arms crossed behind their heads.

Navy Capt. Frank Thorp, a Central Command spokesman, said U.S. forces seized Nasiriyah after the commander of Iraq's 51st Infantry surrendered Friday night.

Just outside Nasiriyah, traffic along the U.S. military supply route was so heavy it sometimes came to a standstill, a massive jam extending back to the Kuwait border.

There, much of the allied forces waited Saturday in long columns of vehicles to cross into Iraq. It did not escape their notice that they might be an inviting target for enemy fire.

"It would be tragic if the Iraqis had some artillery," said 2nd Lt. Sarah Skinner of Vassar, Mich.

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