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U.S. fights off attack by Iraqi troops

By By DAVID ESPO, AP Special Correspondent
American infantry troops fought off a desert attack by Iraqis on Tuesday, inflicting heavy casualties in a clash less than 100 miles from Baghdad. British forces battled for control of Basra, a city of 1.3 million sliding toward chaos.
Defense officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said between 150 and 500 Iraqis were killed in the battle near An Najaf, adding there were no immediate reports of American casualties.
Iraqis launched their attack on a day of howling sandstorms – weather bad enough to slow the U.S.-led drive toward the Iraqi capital.
U.S.-led warplanes bombed targets in the northern part of the country and briefly knocked government television off the air in the capital. And U.S. troops in control of a vast Iraqi air base sealed 36 bunkers, designated as possible hiding places for Saddam's elusive weapons of mass destruction.
American officials issued fresh cautions, as well, about the possible use of chemical weapons by Iraqi troops, although none has yet been used in the 6-day-old war – or even found by the invading troops.
As the pace of combat quickened, American and British officials sought to prepare the public for something less than a quick campaign, and predicted difficult days to come.
Still, President Bush forecast victory. "The Iraqi regime will be ended … and our world will be more secure and peaceful,'' he said after receiving a war update at the Pentagon.
Not surprisingly, Saddam saw it differently. State television carried what it described as a message from him to tribal and clan leaders, saying, ''Consider this to be the command of faith and jihad and fight them.''
If confirmed, the initial reports of fighting near An Najar would make it the biggest ground clash of the war, as well as the first encounter between advancing American infantry and the Iraqi units guarding the approach to Saddam's seat of power.
A senior military official said the U.S. troops had hunkered down against a sandstorm, less than 100 miles south of Baghdad, when Iraqis – either Republican Guard or paramilitary Iraqi troops traveling on foot – opened fire with rocket-propelled grenades.
Some of the 7th Cavalry's equipment was damaged in the attack, the official said.
The unit is part of the Army force driving on Baghdad. Some elements of the force are farther north, near Karbala, with only the Medina armored division of the Republican Guard between them and Baghdad.
Details were sketchy, as well, of the situation inside the southern city of Basra, Iraq's second-largest. British journalists reported that residents were staging an uprising against pro-Saddam forces and that Iraqi troops were firing mortars at them.
British forces staged a raid on a suburb of the city, captured a senior leader of the ruling Baath party and killed 20 of his bodyguards.
''He's sitting there in his little room thinking he's having a good morning and whap, we're in, whap, we're out,'' boasted Col. Chris Vernon, a British Army spokesman.
The Iraqis denied all of it. ''The situation is stable,'' Information Minister Mohammed al-Sahhaf said in an interview with Al-Jazeera, an Arab satellite television network.
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and others have warned of a possible humanitarian crisis in Basra. The International Red Cross said during the day that it had begun repairs at a war-damaged water-pumping station serving the city.
Thus far in the campaign known as Operation Iraqi Freedom, Americans said they had taken more than 3,500 Iraqi prisoners. There was no accurate death toll among Iraqi troops or civilians.
American losses ran to 20 dead and 14 captured or missing. The remains of the first two to die were flown overnight to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
A total of 20 British troops had also died, including two killed Monday by friendly fire.
Despite the sandstorms, the U.S.-led invasion moved ahead.
The U.S. Central Command, which oversees the war, announced the capture of an Iraqi military hospital used as a military staging area. Officials said Marines confiscated more than 200 weapons and stockpiles of ammunition and more than 3,000 chemical suits with masks, as well as Iraqi military uniforms. The Marines also found a T-55 tank on the compound.
Secretary of State State Colin Powell predicted that the coalition eventually will find weapons of mass destruction, saying ''there will come a time, when the enemy has been defeated, to make a more thorough search.''
Elements of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division were about 50 miles from Baghdad and hit Republican Guard units defending the Iraqi capital with an all-night artillery barrage.
Thousands of other troops hastened – as much as the sandstorms would allow – to join them for the coming battle against Saddam's seat of power.
But some helicopters were grounded by the weather, and combat aircraft taking off from the USS Harry Truman returned a few hours later without dropping bombs on their targets.
Distant explosions could be heard in Baghdad, and efforts were underway to dig deeper defensive trenches around the city.
Bush, after receiving his war update, said U.S. forces were clearing approaches to the port city of Umm Qasr of Iraqi-laid mines. ''Coalition forces are working hard to make sure that when the food and medicine begins to move it does so in a safe way,'' he said.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan told Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, the United States is legally responsible for providing humanitarian aid to Iraqis in areas controlled by coalition forces. The United Nations cannot provide humanitarian assistance until security conditions allow the safe return of U.N. staff, Annan told Rice. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer blamed Saddam for slowing the flow of goods by placing mines near Umm Qasr.
The war unfolded side by side with diplomatic maneuvering.
Speaking in Toronto, the American ambassador Paul Cellucci said Canada's refusal to send troops to the war effort has upset and disappointed the United States and caused a ''bump in relations.''
In Saudi Arabia, Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said his country has contacted the United States and Iraq with a peace proposal, and was awaiting a response.