Troops prepare for Iraq's toughest defenders

Published 6:49 am Sunday, March 23, 2003

By By CALVIN WOODWARD Associated Press Writer
Edging closer to Iraq's hard-core defenders, U.S. and British forces besieged the southern city of Basra and rolled to within 150 miles of Baghdad. A grenade attack Sunday on U.S. forces at a rear base camp in Kuwait wounded 10.
Allies boasted ''the instruments of tyranny are collapsing,'' and so, from all appearances, was the will to fight among thousands in the regular Iraqi army. Still, resistance in some areas was fierce.
On the outskirts of Basra, a city of 1.3 million where Saddam Hussein's tough security fighters were thought to be lodged, allies captured the airport in a gunbattle and took a bridge.
U.S. forces crossed the Euphrates River and were halfway to Baghdad, two days after spilling from Kuwait in a dusty dash that has secured strategic oil fields, a seaport and towns.
Near Basra, Cobra attack helicopters, attack jets, tanks and 155 mm howitzers fought ahead of the troops to clear Highway 80. The road was nicknamed Highway of Death during the 1991 Gulf War because of an American air assault so devastating and graphic it even gave U.S. officials pause.
Officials said 1,000 to 2,000 Iraqi soldiers were in allied custody and many others gave up the fight. But six divisions of the Republican Guard, Saddam's best and most loyal soldiers, were still in the way.
There was danger away from the front lines, as well. In northern Kuwait, a camp of the 101st Airborne Division was attacked with grenades and small arms fire, wounding 10, including six seriously. It was the fourth attack against Americans in Kuwait since October.
George Heath, a spokesman at Fort Campbell in Kentucky, home base of the 101st, said ''one or more terrorists threw two hand grenades into a tent'' at the camp near the Iraqi border.
The fate of the Iraqi leader remained unknown to the U.S. and British officials trying to kill him.
Saddam was shown on Iraqi TV again Saturday but there was no telling when the tape was made.
U.S. officials had no new, credible intelligence showing whether he had survived assaults on his compounds, or whether he might have been wounded.
But a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said another senior Iraqi leader was known to be alive and might be running some of Iraq's defenses: Saddam's cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid al-Tikriti, known to his enemies as ''Chemical Ali'' for his role in a chemical-weapons attack on Kurds in 1988.
Any thought the allies would limit air attacks to the cover of darkness vanished in the smoky sunlight Saturday.
Twenty huge columns of smoke rose along Baghdad's southern horizon in the afternoon and intermittent explosions were heard through the capital.
But when darkness did fall, the intensity picked up. Strong blasts rocked the capital. Warplanes were heard overhead once again. The attacks eased as the night wore on.
Six Britons and a U.S. Navy officer died Saturday when two Royal Navy helicopters collided over the Persian Gulf. On Friday, two U.S. Marines were killed in combat and a helicopter crash left eight British and four U.S. Marines dead.
Sickened by the escalation of a campaign they already opposed, demonstrators rallied worldwide to give voice to their rage. Even so, crowds were smaller than before the conflict.
Italian protests were marked by smashed windows in Milan and vandalized gas stations in Rome.
After weeks of recalcitrance by Turkish leaders, U.S. military officials gave up on using Turkish bases to move heavy armored forces into northern Iraq, and redirected ships loaded with the weaponry to the Persian Gulf.
The 4th Infantry's soldiers, about 17,000, have remained out of action at Fort Hood, Texas, pending resolution of the matter. They will probably enter the conflict from Kuwait; how many is not known.
In Baghdad, an earlier round of bombing, seemingly apocalyptic in scale, terrifying in its effect, laid waste to presidential palaces, government offices and military headquarters.
But only three people died in that bombardment, Iraqi officials said Saturday. They said more than 200 were injured.
Iraqi officials showed reporters the residential al-Qadassiya neighborhood, where seven houses were destroyed and 12 damaged, as well as a tourist complex along the Tigris river and an empty orphanage that were hit.
By luck or design, Baghdad's electrical grid survived the towering fireballs.
West of Baghdad, another of Saddam's palaces was destroyed Saturday in a strike by warplanes from the USS Theodore Roosevelt, according to a commander aboard the carrier.
And in the far north, U.S. forces fired Tomahawk cruise missiles at suspected positions of Ansar al Islam guerrillas, accused of having ties to al-Qaida terrorists.
Neighboring Iran protested hits on Iranian territory by at least three U.S. missiles. The State Department said Washington was investigating and respected Iran's territorial integrity.
Diplomatic fallout extended to Moscow, where Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov accused America of trying to seize Iraq's oil wealth under the guise of liberating the country.
As allied forces moved rapidly through the desert, a few children waved; others patted their stomachs or lifted their hands to their mouths to show they were hungry.
Bedraggled Iraqi soldiers surrendered, including members of the 8,000-man 51st Infantry Division, a mechanized unit stationed in Basra. U.S. officials said many surrendered; others dispersed.
But the city of palm groves and oil facilities -- Iraq's main seaport and second largest city -- bristled with danger and unpredictability.
Saddam's security forces in Basra opened up with artillery and heavy machine guns. Facing the prospect of urban warfare, allied commanders hoped to win the surrender of their enemy rather than have to overpower the city.
The British took charge of the Basra fighting Saturday as U.S. Marines pressed north
Even a smaller conquest, the Umm Qasr seaport, was not entirely safe after two days; some Iraqi combatants slipped into civilian garb and became guerillas.
The U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division surged 100 miles through the desert, heading straight for Baghdad and the well-trained Republican Guard troops defending the capital.
President Bush convened a wartime national security meeting at the Camp David, Md., presidential retreat, where he was spending his first weekend since unleashing the armed forces on Iraq on Wednesday.
In his weekly radio address, he said ''our mission is clear -- to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein's support for terrorism and to free the Iraqi people.''
Franks, from his regional command post in Qatar, said coalition forces hadn't found weapons of mass destruction yet.
Iraqi state television, trying to show Saddam is still alive and in control, reported that he had two meetings Saturday with senior government members and one of his sons. It showed footage of Saddam. Saddam had not been seen since he appeared on TV after the opening air strikes in a video that might have been recorded earlier.