U.S. Troops Crush Iraqi Tank Column : Clash: The armored unit stumbles into American forces and opens fire. Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, is reported in turmoil.
Iraq shuddered with confusion and yet another defeat Saturday as a tangled throng of war-weary citizens and retreating soldiers plunged Basra, its second-largest city, into chaos, and American troops southwest of the city crushed an Iraqi armored column that stumbled into U.S. forces and opened fire.
American commanders stopped short of confirming a published account that Basra was seeing the first signs of a popular revolt against President Saddam Hussein. One Western diplomat said to take that account with “a grain of salt.” A military source called it more correct to say that Basra was suffering disarray and gridlock.
The Iraqi armor that opened fire on American forces seemed to be confused, maybe lost, American commanders said. The U.S. troops returned the fire and destroyed or captured about 140 tanks and other kinds of armored vehicles. The Americans took many of the Iraqis into custody, officers said, and there were no reports of any U.S. casualties.
The incident was the largest violation to date of President Bush’s demand that the Iraqis end hostilities or face a resumption of warfare. But a senior Defense Department official reportedly said it would take a major incident, such as a Scud firing or an attack on orders from Baghdad, for the allies to resume the war.
In other developments:
* The U.N. Security Council voted 11-1 with three abstentions to approve a U.S. resolution setting surrender terms for Iraq. The resolution incorporates Bush’s cease-fire terms and previous U.N. resolutions. It calls for Iraq to release detainees and prisoners of war, renounce annexation of Kuwait and accept liability for war damage.
* Bush, in a radio address to American troops, praised their fighting spirit. He credited them with ending Iraq’s offensive military capability. “We thank you,” the President said. “Victory in Kuwait was born in your courage and resolve. The stunning success of our troops was the result of . . . incredible acts of bravery.”
* The Administration indicated that American troops might start coming home soon. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said he hopes to have a withdrawal plan ready in a week or two. And John H. Sununu, the White House chief of staff, said the first U.S. combat troops might begin to return to the United States within as little as a week.
The reports of turmoil in Basra, based on air reconnaissance missions flown over southern Iraq, appeared to represent one of the most dramatic signs yet of what the war’s aftermath is doing to Iraq.
“Basra is chaos right now,” said a senior military official with access to intelligence reports. “The city is practically in gridlock.”
The city, about 275 miles southeast of Baghdad, sits on the southwestern side of the Shatt al Arab, the waterway formed by the combined Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It is a short distance from the site of fierce tank battles that apparently spelled the defeat of the Iraqi Republican Guard. It is a major escape route for troops or any other traffic heading north to Baghdad.
Brig. Gen. Richard I. Neal, chief spokesman for the allied command, and other sources said both civilians and the Iraqi military were filling the streets in Basra and the surrounding countryside.
But all sources stopped short of saying that the confusion represented civil unrest or any dissatisfaction with Hussein, as some European press reports have indicated.
Britain’s Financial Times newspaper reported, for instance, that Basra was witnessing the first signs of a popular revolt. It quoted one man leaving Basra as saying that an Iraqi army tank had fired three or four shells through a portrait of Hussein in the center of the city next to his Arab Baath Socialist Party and Popular Army headquarters.
“The people cheered and shouted, ‘Saddam is finished! All the army are dead!’ ” the paper quoted a Kuwaiti student, Abdullah Jaber Badran, as saying. It said he had traveled to Basra to get some food for his family. “People ululated and shouted, ‘Wonderful!’ Young, old and women.”
There was skepticism, however, about the significance of the report. “I am inclined to take a fair bit of this with a grain of salt,” a Western diplomat said.
U.S. commanders said the trouble in Basra had more to do with large numbers of returning Iraqi troops and their vehicles.
Hundreds of tanks, armored personnel carriers and other military vehicles were parked “willy-nilly” in ditches or alongside roads leading to and from Basra, one military official said, apparently “waiting to go home.” Residents in cars also were forming processions taking them out of Basra and northward.
“It appears to be a real breakdown in civil control of the populace there,” the official said. “I wouldn’t at all be surprised if tempers are frayed. . . .
"(But) whether there is genuine civil unrest as a result of disaffection with the regime, I can’t say that.”
He could not confirm reports of anti-Hussein slogans or soldiers joining in demonstrations.
Gen. Neal said he hopes, however, that stories of death and destruction from dispirited Iraqi soldiers will spread as they return home--and that the stories will cause citizens to rebel.
He refused to say whether American forces were helping to foment unrest in Basra. Troops of the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division are believed to be camped about 20 miles from the city.
Basra, with a population of at least 600,000, was devastated during the Iran-Iraq War--then rebuilt, only to be the site of intense allied bombings during the first weeks of the Gulf War.
Iraqi opposition leaders who live in exile have said they hope to form a new government in Basra, and the reports of chaos there were sure to raise their hopes.
Cease-fire talks, delayed one day at Iraq’s request, are scheduled to begin today.
They are expected to focus on the release of prisoners of war--including nine Americans--as well as the location of Iraqi mines and ways to draw a line of demarcation to separate Iraqi forces and allied troops.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said in Geneva that Iraq has told its representatives that it is ready for an immediate exchange of prisoners. But the agency said Iraq still refuses to say how many prisoners of war it holds--or to identify them by name.
Gen. Neal said Iraq had asked that the cease-fire meeting be postponed while it decided who would attend and how its delegation would reach the site. Neal said the Iraqis would arrive by land and be represented by someone comparable in rank to Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. forces in the Gulf and head of the allied group in attendance.
The meeting will be at an undisclosed location. Iraq does not know where, a U.S. Defense Department official told Reuters news agency. “We are telling them where to go,” the official said, “and when they get there they will be transported to the (meeting) place.”
Military sources at the Pentagon told Reuters that the United States felt confident there would be no attack on the meeting site--but that the allies would not take any chances.
Hundreds of troops and dozens of armored vehicles were being stationed near the site, the sources said, and allied aircraft will patrol overhead.
The allies have already forwarded to the Iraqis a list of conditions that must be accepted for a formal cease-fire to be put into effect, Neal said. “I can tell you quite frankly we are going in with a very confident position. We’re not going in there with hat in hand by any stretch of the imagination.”
One reason allied forces want the Iraqis to reveal the exact locations of mines was evident Friday, when a Marine Corps light armored vehicle struck a land mine, killing one Marine and wounding three others, and when a soldier from the 3rd Armored Division was killed as a vehicle in front of him hit a mine that sprayed shrapnel.
The deaths increased the American toll in the war to 90.
“We’re hopeful it (cease-fire discussions) will only require one meeting,” Neal said.
“If, in fact, the Iraqi leadership doesn’t get in step and become fine-tuned to what’s going on,” he added, “we can transition very, very quickly into offensive operations. If we see a stonewalling, a lack of coming to the table and understanding the conditions the President has laid out . . . (then) we are ready to go on the offensive again, like that.”
Neal snapped his fingers.
Urgency for beginning the talks on a cease-fire was underscored by the skirmish Saturday between the Iraqi tank column and U.S. forces southwest of Basra.
The column--perhaps a remnant of the Republican Guard--was moving northward, deeper into Iraq, when it happened upon the 24th Division. Spotting the Americans, the Iraqis opened fire with tank guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
Backed by Apache AH-64 helicopter gunships, the infantrymen returned the fire. They destroyed dozens of tanks, Neal said, and captured a “substantial number” of Iraqis.
Commanders of the 24th Infantry think the Iraqis got lost, Brig. Gen. Steven L. Arnold, assistant chief of staff for the Central Command, told the Associated Press.
He said the Iraqis apparently were trying to get away from the battlefield and were heading north to cross the Euphrates River. “Instead of turning right and going out that way,” Arnold said, “they continued on Highway 8 and bumped into the 24th Division.
“The lead elements fired on the 24th, and then the 24th Division said, ‘I can’t believe this,’ and reacted quickly with two task forces and Apaches.
“They (the Iraqis) turned and tried to flee, and it was kind of a mess to get turned around,” Arnold said. There was “a pretty good fight. It looks like we destroyed about 60 vehicles and captured another 80 tanks and personnel carriers.”
Among the captured tanks, he said, were several T-72s, Iraq’s top-of-the-line armor bought from the Soviet Union.
In another incident Saturday, members of the 82nd Airborne captured an Iraqi battalion commander--who then assisted in rounding up his men. The Iraqis were said to be in hiding and eager to avoid combat.
More than 1,000 Iraqi prisoners of war were taken in that incident alone.
American officials have said they fear that many of the thousands of Iraqis still wandering the battlefield are unaware that the war has been suspended.
“I think what we can do in the (cease-fire) discussion is resolve and probably draw a line where U.S. forces are going to be located and above that line (establish) where Iraqi forces are,” Neal said.
He declined to specify whether the line would be in Iraq or along the Iraq-Kuwait border.
Another question is how pockets of Iraqi resistance will get the word that a line has been drawn. The same breakdown in communication that has prevented them from hearing about the end of the war also keeps them in the dark about any agreements.
Neal offered to supply the Iraqi leadership with loudspeakers to spread the word.
In an interview on the Cable News Network, Cheney said the United States is considering leaving large supplies of tanks, artillery and other heavy weapons pre-positioned in the Persian Gulf to be redeployed rapidly in the event of a future crisis.
Any forces left in the area, he said, would be less intrusive politically and more sustainable logistically than the current deployment.
Cheney said the continuing presence would be largely naval forces, probably augmenting a peacetime deployment that has existed since after World War II--and possibly some discreetly deployed Air Force detachments.
Cheney said no such plans would go forward without full consultation and approval of Saudi Arabia and its Arabian Peninsula allies in the war--Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. These countries already are moving to augment regional security arrangements.
“Clearly, there’s going to be a need for a more well-organized security system than existed Aug. 2,” he said. “They (the Gulf states) are interested. They’ve been talking among themselves (and) the Gulf Cooperation Council and will begin discussions with us.”
Cheney said that Secretary of State James A. Baker III would address the subject when he meets with Gulf leaders this week.
Meanwhile, rumors about Hussein’s whereabouts and well-being were spreading, partly because he has not been seen in public since Tuesday.
“Saddam has shown up (in) as many places as Elvis has,” one senior military official said. “He has spent his entire professional life doing this stuff--not just dodging us, but his own people.”
Baghdad Radio said Hussein met Saturday night with at least two of his top advisers.
The broadcast said he met with Latif Jasim, his information minister, and Lt. Gen. Abdul Sattar Ahmed Maaini, his deputy chief of staff. It said they discussed plans to restore nationwide television and radio service.
But Hussein has not addressed the Iraqis since two days before the end of hostilities, and allied officials said his whereabouts is not known.
The radio did not say where the meeting took place.
A consummate survivor who has weathered repeated political and military fiascoes throughout his career, Hussein is known to use a network of palaces and safehouses. His latest tactic, according to a military source, is to use numerous Winnebago motor homes.
Surveillance photos show knots of Winnebagos parked in several places around Baghdad, the military official said. “Those suckers are everywhere now.
“I’m sure it’s part of a deception effort.”
Times staff writers John J. Goldman in New York, Oswald Johnston in Washington and William Tuohy in London contributed to this story.