As U.S. Troops Push Ahead, Up to 17 Die, 5 Are Captured

Times Staff Writers

Iraqis captured their first American soldiers Sunday, and U.S. forces suffered their heaviest losses yet as they pushed to within 100 miles of the doorstep to Baghdad.

Early today, as American troops renewed their advance toward the Iraqi capital, they traded heavy artillery fire with the Republican Guard, apparently for the first time, while airstrikes pounded the city for the fifth straight day.

In the most dispiriting U.S. setback, at least five Americans were seized and as many as 17 killed in separate incidents, the most U.S. casualties suffered on any single day of the war. U.S. commanders described some of the incidents as "ruses" that lured the Americans into captivity and death.

Meanwhile, U.S. and British troops pressed their march to engage head-on with the Republican Guard in and around Baghdad, probably within days, and warplanes pounded Iraqi units south of the capital. U.S. forces bombarded Tikrit, north of Baghdad, the hometown of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and one of his most significant bases of power.

Shortly after 11 a.m today, a man identified as Hussein by Iraqi officials appeared on national television to exhort troops to fight the invaders. "Cut their throats," he urged. "They have come to occupy your land.... Strike, strike them, and strike evil, so evil will be defeated.... God is great. Long live Iraq."

Both in Nasiriyah, in southeastern Iraq, and in the southern port of Umm al Qasr, fighting continued Sunday long after the Pentagon said both cities were in coalition hands -- evidence that opposition was greater than expected. "It's the toughest day of resistance we've had so far," Army Lt. Gen. John Abizaid told reporters.

In Washington, President Bush cautioned that there might be no quick finish to the war. "This is just the beginning of a tough fight," he said. "It's going to take a while to achieve our objective. But we're on course, we're determined, and we're making good progress."

The worst reversal came with the ambush of a six-vehicle supply convoy southeast of Nasiriyah after the lead driver apparently took a wrong turn and wandered far from his division combat forces.

A rescue team caught up with the convoy, beat back its attackers and retrieved survivors. But 12 soldiers were reported missing.

A short time later, Iraqi television showed the bodies of what appeared to be American soldiers, bloodied and their clothes torn, sprawled on the floor of a makeshift morgue. The name of one was visible on his shirt pocket. The dog tags of another rested on his chest.

One had a gaping wound in his forehead.

The broadcast showed interviews with four dazed men and one woman, all in uniform, two of them bandaged. They spoke in American-accented English and identified themselves as members of a logistics team, the 507th Maintenance Company, based at Ft. Bliss, Texas.

The Iraqi television presenter said they were captured near Nasiriyah.

U.S. officials confirmed that prisoners had been taken, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said in Washington that if American prisoners were shown on television, then "those pictures are a violation of the Geneva Conventions."

"It is illegal to do things to POWs that are humiliating," Rumsfeld said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

The Iraqi television footage also was broadcast on Al Jazeera, the Qatari-based satellite network popular in the Arab world.

The voice of an Iraqi asked: "Why did you come?"

A young, pale private first class, who said he was from Kansas, darted his eyes around the room. "I was told to come here," he said. "I just follow orders."

"You've come to kill Iraqi people?"

"I'm told to shoot only if I'm shot at," the private responded nervously. "They shot at me first, so I shoot back. I don't want to kill anybody."

The Iraqi then tried to interview another soldier, lying on the floor and covered with blood. He cradled the man's head toward a microphone so that the soldier could answer questions. The soldier appeared to be in pain.

At the White House, where he returned after spending the weekend at Camp David, Bush demanded that Iraq treat any U.S. prisoners of war humanely. Any Iraqis who mistreat American captives, he said, "will be treated as war criminals."

Speaking somberly and with great deliberation, the president said he and his wife had prayed earlier in the day for all the U.S.-led troops, especially those who had lost their lives.

"We pray for their families," Bush said. "We ask God's comfort for those who mourn today. And we thank all the coalition forces for their bravery and courage in Operation Iraqi Freedom. I say to the families ... I thank them for the sacrifice they make, and we pray with them."

During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the U.S. military said, Iraq took 24 Americans prisoner, including two who were captured when they crossed into Iraqi-held territory from Kuwait after hostilities ceased. All were eventually released, except for one pilot declared dead for a decade but relisted as missing in action last October by the Navy.

In a briefing for reporters at Camp As Sayliyah in Qatar, Abizaid, an Arabic speaker and second in command of U.S. forces in the region, said Iraqi fighters had tricked and trapped American troops.

During one incident, also in Nasiriyah, a group of Iraqi men displayed a white flag as if to surrender, Abizaid said, and when American Marines approached, the Iraqis opened fire with artillery. As many as 10 Americans were killed in what he called the single bloodiest battle of the war. It ended when U.S. artillery knocked out eight Iraqi tanks.

In another incident, Abizaid said, six 1st Marine Division members came under attack in the town of Rafawi, 20 miles west of the southern city of Basra, after they were greeted with waves and smiles.

Driving into the town in two Humvees, the Marines were ambushed by Iraqi forces armed with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic rifles, Abizaid said. He said the Marines returned fire with shotguns and sidearms and escaped.

During the incident, British and U.S. forces captured an undetermined number of Iraqi soldiers and a cache of weapons, he said.

Abizaid also said Iraqi defenders have rigged bridges in Baghdad with explosives and might be moving civilians into position to serve as human shields.

The general revealed that two Iraqi generals had surrendered and were providing information on the possible location of chemical weapons. Abizaid acknowledged, however, that no weapons of mass destruction had yet been found.

U.S. officials in Washington said American troops seized an Iraqi factory which they described as a "site of interest" -- suspected of having manufactured chemical weapons. They said the factory was near the Shiite holy city of Najaf, about 100 miles south of Baghdad.

Confirming the seizure, which was first reported in the Jerusalem Post, the officials said the military was investigating several other suspected weapons facilities.

The plant was taken while the Army's 3rd Infantry Division was in Najaf locked in a series of heavy weapons exchanges with elements of the Medina Division of the Republican Guard -- the first direct clash between Americans and some of Iraq's top troops.

As many as 100 well-armed Iraqi militiamen were reported killed. Coalition aircraft, including A-10s and B-52s, hammered a 30-vehicle Iraqi convoy en route to join the battle.

In Baghdad, significant elements of the Republican Guard were targeted overnight by U.S. and coalition jet fighters and bombers, a U.S. defense official said.

A series of powerful explosions rocked the central city early today. Bombs slammed into a presidential complex on the west bank of the Tigris River and into state buildings across the river.

Bombardment in Baghdad has grown so regular that civil defense officials did not bother to sound air raid warnings. The Iraqis also reduced their antiaircraft fire.

But loudspeakers carried recordings of Muslim prayers -- "Allahu akbar," or "God is great" -- after each of the major strikes, as if to tell the Iraqi people that faith would overcome the adversity.

More than 20 oil-pit fires set by the Iraqi government shrouded the city in a smokescreen for the second day, creating a dark haze and making it hard for some to breathe.

U.S. and coalition aircraft flew protective sorties over American ground forces in southwestern and northern Iraq to shield them from Iraqi fire and to search for Iraqi Scud missile sites, a defense official said.

In all, he said, aircraft flew more than 2,000 sorties and dropped bombs on more than 200 targets.

He said the planes included Air Force F-117, F-15 and F-16 fighter jets; B-52, B-2 and B-1 bombers; and Navy strike aircraft launched from carriers. The Air Force also used A-10 helicopters and AC-130 helicopter gunships, the official said. In addition, it used an armed version of the unmanned Predator.

Planes took off from as far away as Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, the British Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia and Fairford Royal Air Field in England, the official said. Long-range bombers from Diego Garcia and Fairford flew 16 hours nonstop.

Part of the air protection was for supply lines and rear-guard units in southern Iraq vulnerable to pockets of resistance that remained in the wake of the coalition advance.

In Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, 77 Iraqis were killed, including women and children, after aerial bombardment, Al Jazeera reported.

It was not possible to verify the report.

Group Capt. Jon Fynes, commander of the Royal Air Force in the Persian Gulf, said American and British forces have waited to gauge resistance before ordering air support, to cause the least possible damage and the fewest casualties.

"We'll only attack the legitimate military targets that we really need to attack," Fynes said.

"We have gone to extraordinary lengths to minimize risks to any civilians. But we're still in a war zone. There is still risk."

In Washington, Rumsfeld told NBC's "Meet the Press" that he still did not know whether Hussein was alive and in control of his regime.

There were reports in Baghdad that the Iraqi leader had been injured and perhaps died when U.S. forces bombarded what Iraqi radio said was his home and the homes of his two daughters during the opening salvo of hostilities.

For now, Rumsfeld said, the United States assumes that "he's alive and well."

Rumsfeld also said that "we have people on the ground in the country in a variety of locations ... talking to senior military leaders," including some in the Republican Guard, about the possibility of their surrender.

"The greater the pressure," Rumsfeld said, "the more likely that they'll tip."

In what both American and British officials said was an accident, a U.S. crew used a Patriot missile to shoot down a Royal Air Force warplane. The Tornado ground-attack jet was returning from a bombing mission over Iraq when it was downed near the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border. Its two-man crew was pronounced dead.

Two other British soldiers were missing after their vehicle came under attack in southern Iraq, a British official told Reuters news agency. The Ministry of Defense in London declined to identify them or give details of the attack.

And an American in his early 20s, who had recently converted to Islam, was being held on suspicion of tossing three grenades Sunday into three tents in Kuwait where fellow soldiers slept. One was killed and 15 injured.

In the north, agreement was reached Sunday for about 6,000 Turkish troops to enter Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, according to a senior Western official speaking on condition of anonymity.

But if the Turks go any farther than 12 miles into the Kurdish enclave, the official said, "they will run the risk of being fired upon by coalition forces."

In Washington, Bush told reporters: "We are making it very clear to the Turks that we expect them not to come into northern Iraq. We're in constant touch with the Turkish military, as well as Turkish politicians. They know our policy, and it's a firm policy."

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Perry, traveling with the 1st Marine Division, reported from southern Iraq and Wilkinson from Qatar. Times staff writers Mary Curtius, Edwin Chen and Esther Schrader in Washington; John Daniszewski in Baghdad; Jeffrey Fleishman in Halabja, Iraq; Richard Boudreaux in Diyarbakir, Turkey; David Wharton in Kuwait City; Geoffrey Mohan with the 3rd Infantry Division in southern Iraq; and special correspondent Amberin Zaman in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 25, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction Military aircraft -- An article on the war in Iraq in Monday's Section A incorrectly described Air Force A-10s and AC-130s as helicopters. The A-10 is an attack jet and the AC-130 is a special model of the C-130 Hercules cargo plane that is used as an aerial gunship.
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