Resistance Slows Troops as They Head Toward a Battered Baghdad

Times Staff Writers

Backed by a relentless barrage of air power, U.S. and British troops passed the halfway point early today on their charge to Baghdad, but they were slowed by patches of Iraqi resistance and braced for heavier fighting ahead.

Crossing the Euphrates River on captured bridges, the invading troops fought for an airport in the city of Nasiriyah and said they had captured an airport and bridge on the outskirts of Basra, Iraq's second-largest city.

Iraqi troops fought fiercely in both places and U.S. commanders apparently decided against a street fight for Basra, pushing on instead toward the capital. The U.S. and British troops could reach the capital as early as Monday or Tuesday, U.S. officials said, but are initially expected to ring the city, not necessarily enter it.

There were no reports of casualties among American forces in combat Saturday. But at a rear staging camp in Kuwait, a U.S. serviceman was suspected of attacking fellow members of the 101st Airborne Division today with hand grenades, killing one soldier and injuring at least 12. The serviceman was taken into custody. The motive for the attack "most likely was resentment," Army spokesman Max Blumenfeld said.

The 2nd Brigade of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division was battling Iraqi forces shortly after dawn today in several small villages on the outskirts of the city of Najaf, a Shiite holy city 100 miles south of Baghdad on the western bank of the Euphrates.

The brigade's M-1 Abrams tanks fired their main 120-millimeter cannons for the first time since entering Iraq, destroying a walled complex on the outskirts of Najaf where Iraqi forces apparently were located. Iraqi TV said the local leader of Hussein's Arab Socialist Baath Party was killed in the fighting, which bogged down the U.S. troops' northward progress.

The unit, which moved in a 48-hour convoy through Iraq's southern desert, makes up the leading element of a front that stretches nearly 250 miles to Basra in the southeast.

Early today, a British military spokesman at the command headquarters in Doha, Qatar, said an RAF aircraft returning from an operation over Iraq had been declared missing. British military sources said the plane may have been shot down by a U.S. Patriot missile.

Baghdad saw its third straight night of bombing, along with some daylight attacks that suggested the U.S. command was growing more confident of its ability to strike unimpeded.

Still, Maj. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. remained "respectful" of Iraq's defensive capabilities. And he warned that the coalition forces have yet to encounter Iraq's toughest divisions, those of President Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard.

"Bad things could still happen," said Victoria Clarke, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

Commanders of the 1st Marine Division said they expect to be engaging the Republican Guard within the next few days. One senior officer said Iraqi forces were mainly resorting to artillery exchanges, something he called "a tactic of desperation."

"Things are going ahead of schedule for us," said Marine Col. Ben Saylor.

The war claimed the life of at least one journalist, an Australian television cameraman. Paul Moran, 39, was among five people killed in northeastern Iraq when an suicide bomber blew himself up in a vehicle near a camp of the Ansar al Islam group, which is believed to be linked to Al Qaeda.

In a separate incident in southern Iraq, three journalists with Britain's ITN television network were reported missing after coming under fire. Iraqi government officials said three people were killed and at least 250 people, including women and children, injured during a devastating aerial attack on Baghdad late Friday and early Saturday.

In addition, Al Jazeera television, which is shown widely throughout the Arab world, reported that 50 people had been killed in bombing around Basra. It showed video of dead and wounded civilians, interposed with scenes of U.S. missile strikes. The claims could not be confirmed.

Antiwar protests continued in many world cities, with sizable turnouts in London, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam and Barcelona, Spain. In the United States, there were demonstrations in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago, among other places.

"I wanted my voice to be heard," said jewelry artist Elaine Sonne, who joined a demonstration in Hollywood. "I don't want my country to be a warmonger, but that's what it's become. My representatives don't represent me, so I'm protesting."

Despite the signs of greater Iraqi resistance, the commander of U.S. forces in the gulf, Gen. Tommy Franks, said he was satisfied that the initial phase of the war was unfolding as planned.

"We believe we are on our timeline, and I am satisfied with what I see," Franks told reporters at the U.S. Central Command's regional headquarters in Doha. "Our troops are performing as we would expect -- magnificently."

During his 45-minute news conference, Franks said he would conduct a campaign "unlike any other in history -- a campaign characterized by shock, by surprise, by flexibility, by the employment of precise munitions on a scale never before seen and by the application of overwhelming force."

He added that military operations were underway in northern, western and southern Iraq as well as around Baghdad.

"The outcome is not in doubt," Franks said. "There may well be tough days ahead, but the forces on the field will achieve the objectives."

While those forces, made up primarily of U.S. and British soldiers, are enjoying overwhelming success, it has not been without pain or setbacks.

One day after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the southern port city of Umm al Qasr had fallen, U.S. and British units continued to encounter resistance in the form of small-arms fire from remnants of Iraqi forces dressed as civilians.

A member of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force was killed Friday in the initial battle for Umm al Qasr.

Farther north, just west of Basra, U.S. and British units traded artillery fire with Iraqi forces Saturday as the invading troops captured key installations near the city, including the airport.

Basra, a city of 1.3 million, is considered a bastion of anti-Hussein feeling in Iraq, and U.S. officials had hoped it would welcome the allied forces.

After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, it was the scene of a rebellion by its Shiite Muslim population against the primarily Sunni regime, but the Iraqi army crushed the uprising.

A British military spokesman, Col. Chris Vernon, said Basra itself appeared to hold no Iraqi military forces.

A senior U.S. military official, Brig. Gen. Vince Brooks, said Iraqis had set afire nine of the roughly 500 oil wells in the giant Rumaila oil field west of Basra. The rest, along with an important oil and gas separation plant, were captured by coalition forces, according to Brooks and Vernon.

Iraqi resistance appeared to slow, at least temporarily, the dramatic dash north toward Baghdad by two divisions of American troops.

The Army's 7th Cavalry, among those units leading the sprint north on roads west of the Euphrates River, reportedly halted before noon after encountering Iraqi units in the area.

The 1st Marine Division also paused Saturday after reaching the Euphrates flood plain about 100 miles into Iraq, stopping to rest, refuel and repair damaged vehicles beaten up on the grueling 30-hour trip north.

Military sources hinted that the stop might also have been made to permit more negotiations between the United States and senior Iraqi officers commanding Republican Guard units on the southern approaches to Baghdad.

Those contacts are said to include offers of a stake in rebuilding Iraq in a post-Hussein era in return for surrender.

"Those discussions, both with people in uniform and not in uniform, will continue in the hours and the days ahead," Franks told reporters in Doha.

To the west of the Marines, the 3rd Infantry's 2nd Brigade burst out of the desert early Saturday, reaching the Euphrates plain without having fired a shot.

Some of the hundreds of vehicles that lumbered through the desert on a round-the-clock drive that began Thursday limped into fuel stops.

One tank underwent a full engine and transmission replacement on the spot -- a $1.1-million job.

Once the column hit the Euphrates plain, the desert dust turned to sticky paste in a morning rain. Residents in the few small villages along the way crowded onto the highway. Some waved energetically, as if encouraging the column forward.

One man, dressed in a traditional black tunic and red-and-white head scarf, pointed to the tanks and said, "OK." After a pause, he added, "Saddam: jail."

About 100 miles north of the Kuwait-Iraq border, the 1st Marine Division continued to round up hundreds of Iraqi prisoners of war.

The captives, who surrendered in bunches ranging from five to 50, were from Iraq's 51st Mechanized Division. The unit, charged with defending much of Iraq's southern border area, appears to have disintegrated under the initial pressure of the invasion.

Marines dealing with the POWs described them as hungry and dispirited. Many were either barefoot or wearing sandals, Marines involved in the roundup said.

"They were a sad and depressed bunch," said Lance Cpl. James Morrison, 21, of New Orleans.

"They didn't look fit at all, nothing like a real fighting force, more like a ragtag bunch of misfits. That's not an army -- that's the Bad News Bears."

In Doha, Franks said 1,000 to 2,000 Iraqi POWs were now in custody and "thousands more have laid down their weapons and have gone home."

The pause in the push north came as more cruise missiles struck Baghdad and cities in northern Iraq, including Mosul and Tikrit.

In Baghdad, frightened families rushed to shelters after a series of strikes against military bases and government facilities. Apparently seeking to obscure targets, Iraqi troops set alight more than a dozen oil pits to send up black smoke plumes as a shroud over the entire area.

By the light of day, it was easier to see the damage wrought by the ferocious bombing Friday night. The Republic Palace, the Special Security and General Security headquarters, barracks for the Republican Guard and the Air Defense were among the facilities pounded.

Also hit was the still uncompleted Peace Palace, with its four huge busts of Hussein dressed as a medieval warrior on its pediments. The heads were intact, but the central dome was broken through.

Throughout the city, workers picked up debris and broken glass.

But, apparently impressed by the accuracy of the U.S. and British bombs, more people came out onto the streets, with merchants opening shops and some restaurants.

Information Minister Mohammed Said Sahaf told reporters that the United States was lying about battlefield successes in the south of the country and said their advance had been halted by stiff Iraqi resistance. He said U.S. troops were surrounded and battling for survival near Nasariyah.

He offered to take journalists there to prove it.

He also said that the U.S. has been deliberately targeting Iraqi civilians, and he took two busloads of journalists late Saturday to look at the ruins of two houses in residential districts.

Earlier in the day, Sahaf had insisted that the capital was unbowed by the air war. "Baghdad will remain with its head held high," he said. "The Baghdad of Saddam will remain defiant."

Iraqi state TV, apparently trying to demonstrate that Hussein was alive and in charge, reported that he held two meetings with government leaders and one of his sons on Saturday and showed videotape of him in a meeting. It was impossible to tell when the scene was filmed.

There were missile attacks throughout Saturday in Baghdad. One target was a palace complex along the Tigris River that area residents said belonged to Qusai Hussein, the president's younger son, who is in charge of his personal security. Also struck was an air force center in central Baghdad.

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Mohan reported with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division in southern Iraq and Marshall reported from Doha. Contributing to this report were Tony Perry with the 1st Marine Division in southern Iraq; John Daniszewski in Baghdad; John Hendren in Washington; Jill Leovy in Los Angeles; and Janet Stobart in London.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Friday March 28, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction Joint Chiefs of Staff -- Articles in Section A on Sunday and Thursday referred to Army Maj. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He is vice director of operations for the group but is not one of its generals.
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