Tue, Apr 01, 2003 - Page 1 News List

US troops get serious with Republican Guard

MARCH ON BAGHDAD US officers said ground forces were involved in their first major engagement with Saddam Hussein's elite troops southeast of Karbala

AFP , NEAR NAJAF, IRAQ

A US Army soldier atop a Humvee armed with a heavy machine gun secures an area by a burning oil well in Iraq's vast southern Rumaila oilfields on Sunday. US engineers moved through the oilfields on Sunday, shutting down wellheads in an operation that could take months to complete.

PHOTO: REUTERS

US ground troops preparing to march on Baghdad engaged for the first time in "serious" combat against crack Iraqi Republican Guards as British commandos yesterday pursued a major assault on the southern port city of Basra.

US officers said 200 Iraqis had been killed, wounded or captured in the first major battle against units of the elite Iraqi Guard that broke out overnight southeast of Karbala, 80km from Baghdad.

Colonel Will Grimsley, of the US Army's 3rd Infantry Division, said there had been sporadic encounters earlier with elements of the Guard in the area, but "this is the first serious contact."

For days now, US and British warplanes have pounded positions south of Baghdad believed held by the Republican Guard, seen as President Saddam Hussein's most formidable military unit and key to the defense of his seat of power.

Reports of the battle around Karbala, a Shiite Muslim holy city in central Iraq, came as US armored units finalized plans for a decisive thrust toward the capital within a week, commanders said.

The 20,000-strong 3rd Infantry Division, a heavy armored force spearheading the invasion, has concentrated near the Euphrates valley town of Najaf, 150km south of Baghdad.

Elsewhere, fighting was reported in Najaf and southern Samawah while British forces launched a major assault to secure a suburb of southern Basra.

Some 600 men from 40 Commando attacked Abu Al Khasib on Sunday in the first all-out British assault by a full commando since the Falklands War in 1982. The operation was continuing yesterday.

British troops suffered an unknown number of injuries, but said at least 300 enemy prisoners of war were taken and a number of Iraqi tanks, armored troop carriers and bunkers destroyed.

A correspondent for the Arabic news channel al-Jazeera said British artillery had opened fire on the western suburbs early yesterday afternoon. The network showed live pictures of clouds of smoke and debris.

On day 12 of the war, the blitz in Baghdad to bring down the regime continued, with the information ministry blasted by missiles and domestic television off the air for several hours as US-led forces targeted communications.

Facing mounting criticism of their war strategy, US commanders have said they plan to "tighten the noose" on Baghdad before any decisive push.

"We have the power to be patient in this. We are not going to hurry," Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Richard Myers said Sunday. "We will be patient and continue to draw the noose tighter and tighter."

Yesterday's hit on the information ministry was the second successful strike on the regime's propaganda machine after damage to the building Saturday.

Meanwhile, big explosions boomed out from the edge of the capital as they have daily since the war began, but Baghdadis were out on the streets again and at work trying to maintain a semblance of normal life.

At least seven of Baghdad's telephone exchanges have been pounded in recent days, knocking out services in some areas, and adding to the anguish of residents.

Smoke meanwhile was seen rising from Saddam's sprawling presidential palace on the banks of the Tigris after at least eight explosions just after midnight.

More blasts then rocked the city of 5 million into the morning and al-Jazeera reported a new wave of bombing on Baghdad shortly after noon.

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