Fierce fighting on road to Baghdad

Published 8:39 am Saturday, March 29, 2003

By By DAVID ESPO AP Special Correspondent
American-led forces dropped 1,000-pound bombs on Iraqi Republican Guard units ringing Baghdad on Friday and battled for control of the strategic city of Nasiriyah. President Bush warned of ''further sacrifice'' ahead in the face of unexpectedly fierce fighting.
In anticipation of a push on Baghdad, F/A-18s attacked a Republican Guard fuel depot and missile facility south of the Iraqi capital, officials said. Hornets dropped 500-pound satellite-guided bombs on the fuel facility, while other planes hit the missile site with four, 1000-pound bunker-penetrating bombs.
Iraq said at least 58 civilians were killed when a bomb struck a crowded, open-air market in the capital and blamed the deaths on American and British invaders.
On the 10th day of Operation Iraqi Freedom, a British supply ship docked in the southern port city of Umm Qasr bearing tons of humanitarian supplies, and officials said fires at three of seven oil wells in the south had been extinguished.
At the same time, American officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Saddam Hussein's troops have been spotted between U.S. and Iraqi lines wearing full chemical protection gear and unloading 50 gallon drums from trucks. The report reinforced concern that American and British troops might face chemical weapons.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld sternly warned the Syrian government to cut off alleged shipments of night vision goggles and other military equipment to Iraq. ''We consider such trafficking as hostile acts and will hold the Syrian government accountable,'' he said.
Syrian and Iraqi officials both ridiculed the charge.
As the number of Americans inside Iraq continued to swell, the 101st Airborne Division raided Republican Guard units south of Baghdad in the first such attack by the division in the war. Two Apache helicopter gunships crashed on their return, but all crew members escaped injury.
A missile exploded in the sea near an empty shopping mall in Kuwait City in the middle of the night, the closest a missile has come to the city since the war started in neighoring Iraq. U.S. officials said it appeared to be a Silkworm missile launched from southern Iraq. The Chinese-made Silkworm is an anti-ship missile with a range of about 50 miles.
Buoyed by a second day of good weather, American and British warplanes bombed at will. Many warplanes took aim at the Medina Republican Guard division, defending the capital against American advance units. ''They are continuing to soften up targets,'' said Capt. Dick Corpus aboard the USS Kitty Hawk. ''We are very satisfied with the progress so far.''
There was fresh bombing as well in cities near northern Iraqi oil fields that are a major objective of American forces.
Inside the capital, a large explosion struck early Saturday in the area near the Information Ministry.
But in the marketplace, crowds of mourners wailed and blood-soaked children's slippers sat on the street not far from a crater blasted into the ground.
Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf said at least 58 people were killed, and charged that Americans and British were targeting civilians to avenge losses on the battlefield. ''These are cowardly air raids,'' he said.
Hundreds of thousands of Iranians demonstrated, denouncing both ''Bush's barbarism'' and ''Saddam Hussein's dictatorship.''
Overall, Iraq claims more than 4,000 civilians have been killed or wounded since the war began on March 19.
The combat flared as Bush and his administration officials walked a tightrope -- insisting that the war was proceeding according to plan, yet preparing the country for more combat casualties.
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, used a color-coded map of Iraq to demonstrate to reporters that Saddam has lost control of 35 percent to 40 percent of his country.
At the White House a short while later, Bush forecast victory, yet added, ''Fierce fighting currently under way will demand further courage and further sacrifice.''
Nasiriyah and Basra provided two examples of the tougher-than-expected fighting Bush referred to, the first the site of some of the fiercest fighting of the war, the second a city of 1.3 million people encircled by British forces.
Marines and Iraqi forces exchanged tank and artillery fire in their continuing battle for Nasiriyah, a city of about 500,000 on the Euphrates River between the Kuwaiti border and Baghdad. Ground forces called in Cobra support helicopters, and loud explosions could be heard throughout the city.
Officials said four Marines were missing. Eight others haven't been seen since fighting in the area on Sunday.
In addition to the fighting with Iraqis, more than two dozen Marines were injured in a friendly fire incident in the battle earlier in the week. And in grim recognition of the continuing fighting, Marines have taken to calling the southern entrances to the city ''Ambush Alley.''
Britain is investigating a possible friendly fire incident following a report that a British soldier was killed in an attack from U.S. aircraft.
In Basra, closer to the Kuwaiti border, Iraqi forces said to be members of the paramilitary Fedayeen continued to resist British efforts to take control.
British military officials said Iraqi paramilitary forces fired mortars and machine guns on about 1,000 civilians trying to leave Basra, forcing them to return to the city. Lt. Cmdr. Emma Thomas, a British military spokeswoman, said an initial group of 1,000 made it out safely, and were given food and medical attention. She said the firing started when a second group of about the same size started fleeing.