U.S. and British troops flushed out paramilitary fighters street by street in three cities of central and southern Iraq on Sunday as warplanes hammered the Republican Guard surrounding Baghdad and American soldiers inched to within sight of Karbala, a gateway to the capital.
An American military helicopter crashed in the south, killing three Marines and injuring another, the Pentagon said. A military spokesman said the UH-1 Iroquois helicopter, known as a Huey, went down for undetermined reasons just after sunset near a military base and was not under hostile fire.
Elsewhere on the 11th day of the war, allied forces foiled an apparent suicide-bombing attempt near Najaf, about 90 miles south of Baghdad, and mounted urban firefights against paramilitary forces in Najaf and Nasiriyah, as well as in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, to defeat irregular forces who have ambushed and harassed them.
During an overnight raid into southern Basra, British commandos reportedly killed several Iraqi officers. One British Royal Marine was killed in the operation, code-named after the fictional British secret agent James Bond. And on the northern front, airstrikes forced Iraqi troops to pull back into the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul.
In Baghdad, airstrikes persisted throughout Sunday and early today. Bombs and missiles hit command centers, a telecommunications exchange, an intelligence complex in the Karada district, and the Abu Ghraib presidential palace, which reportedly belongs to Qusai Hussein, one of Saddam Hussein’s two sons.
A residential area was struck Sunday evening, the Arab satellite news station Al Jazeera said. There was no immediate confirmation of the report.
In the move toward Karbala, the 2nd Brigade of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division swept into the town of Hindiya, to the southeast, at dawn today and encountered Iraqi forces at a bridge over the Euphrates River. Armored troops drew sporadic fire from paramilitary and regular Iraqi forces.
The Americans captured several dozen Iraqis and wounded others. The attack sent residents of Hindiya, which has a population of about 100,000, fleeing down streets and alleys.
It brought the 3rd Infantry Division within sight of Karbala and a chokepoint known as Karbala Gap, between Razzaza Lake and the Euphrates, as U.S.-led forces paused to let bombs and missiles pound three divisions of the Republican Guard standing across the gap between them and Baghdad.
U.S. and British fighter jets bombed the Medina, Baghdad and Hammurabi divisions more than 500 times Sunday, a U.S. Air Force spokesman said.
As the bombs fell, artillery units struck Karbala, a Shiite Muslim holy city of about 549,000, throughout the afternoon and launched rockets that arced across the sky. Smoke rose on the outskirts of the city.
Infantry units clearing a route into Karbala encountered white flags raised over outlying settlements and scores of surrendering soldiers and refugees holding their hands over their heads.
As the 3rd Infantry Division moved closer to Karbala, an estimated 1,000 to 1,400 paramilitary fighters were holed up in the city, along with elements of the Medina Division, according to a U.S. intelligence captain.
Infantry commanders expected fighting in Karbala to be intense.
Col. Michael Linnington, commander of the 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, said allied air attacks had “degraded” the Medina Division to about 50% of its strength.
But other intelligence estimates put the Medina at 70% strength.
In central Iraq, the 101st Airborne encountered what appeared to be a car carrying suicide bombers Sunday on the outskirts of Najaf, a Shiite holy city with 563,000 residents.
Four U.S. soldiers had been killed the day before at a checkpoint near Najaf when an Iraqi officer in a taxi motioned for help, then blew himself up, along with the car.
In Sunday’s encounter, a car approached a U.S. checkpoint along a road outside the city. This time, airborne commanders said, American troops spotted three armed men inside and called in a mortar attack. One round destroyed the car and killed the men.
To protect supply and communications lines for the 3rd Infantry Division at Karbala, two infantry brigades of the 101st Airborne mounted a street-to-street sweep in the outskirts of Najaf.
Linnington said the brigades took several hundred Iraqis into custody, captured caches of small arms and sealed off the city.
“A couple hundred” Iraqi irregulars were still inside, Linnington said, although other American estimates put the number as high as 1,000.
At dawn today, some reportedly tried to break out of the city but came under fire from artillery and U.S. helicopter gunships.
There were no immediate reports of casualties.
Linnington said the two 101st infantry brigades, numbering about 8,000 men, planned to strike at the irregulars sporadically, quickly and efficiently but avoid going deeply into Najaf to engage in protracted street fights.
Seizing Najaf is not the goal, he said.
“You can’t let yourself get bogged down in any one town,” Linnington said. “You have to keep your eyes on the prize: Baghdad.”
Military officials said early today that soldiers from the 3rd Infantry and 82nd Airborne divisions killed a total of about 100 paramilitary fighters in Najaf and Samawah.
They also took about 50 prisoners, the officials said.
In Nasiriyah, southeast of Najaf, U.S. Marines reportedly were engaged in heavy fighting against paramilitary groups during much of Sunday.
The Marines attacked what appeared to be a complex for irregular troops in the center of the city, according to accounts from reporters traveling with the units.
Cobra helicopters and an A-10 antitank aircraft aided the Marines’ advance into Nasiriyah, the reports said, and they captured buildings used by Iraq’s 11th Infantry Division as well as large caches of weapons.
In addition, the Marines reportedly seized about 3,000 chemical-protection suits.
U.S. commanders warned that the risk of chemical or biological attack increased as troops moved closer to the Iraqi capital.
The Iraqis “have made the logical leap beyond, ‘Will we use chemical weapons?’ ” one officer said Sunday. “They’re now saying, ‘How and where will we use them?’ ”
Soldiers in the 101st Airborne were assigned to monitor for chemical or biological agents. Commanders said any such attack would come at night or just before dawn, when the Iraqis would try to conceal the attack and avoid sunlight, which degrades such agents.
Commanders also warned their troops about a newly discovered enemy tactic: stringing piano wire or fishing line across roadways to decapitate gunners in Humvee turrets.
One such booby trap was discovered Saturday near Najaf.
To the south in Basra, British troops said they had reduced by half the number of roving patrols being conducted by Iraqi paramilitary forces. But a British spokesman said Iraqis still controlled the center of the city.
The British said they expected to enter downtown Basra soon, following a week of shelling the city from the perimeter, and were reviewing tactics in cooperation with Americans.
Aris Darraj, an Iraqi fleeing Basra, said he doubted that U.S. and British forces could win in house-to-house fighting for either Basra or Baghdad.
“If they go into Basra, there’s going to be a slaughterhouse,” Darraj said. “Fedayeen [paramilitaries] are very good at street wars. I don’t think the British and Americans are brave enough.”
Maj. Duncan McSporran, whose 1st Fusiliers fought street-to-street combat in Somalia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Cyprus, disagreed. “That’s what we’re trained for,” he said, grabbing a bayonet for emphasis.
In Basra and other southern cities, British troops reported receiving a growing amount of information from residents about paramilitary forces and their whereabouts.
“We’re getting increasing intelligence from the local Iraqi people about who is who and which buildings are being used as paramilitary bases,” Maj. Gen. Albert Whitley told reporters in Kuwait City. “Most of [the irregular forces] do not belong to the towns where they are based. We’re trying to exploit that.”
In other positive developments, Whitley said, some shops and schools near the Rumaila oil field have reopened, and oil workers have asked about coming back when the field resumes production.
Dockworkers in the far southern port of Umm al Qasr, he said, have returned to their jobs.
British and American forces were trying to identify junior political party officials and town mayors to help establish a new government after the war. They were looking for policemen who could be trusted to resume their work.
But Whitley cautioned that progress was slow.
After Saturday’s fatal suicide bombing at Najaf, the British searched all who approached checkpoints in the south. Anyone deemed suspicious -- such as “people with too much money in their pockets” -- was detained and screened, Whitley said.
“These thugs have lived by the gun,” he said, “and they’re going to die by the gun.”
The British were hampered by Iraqis’ memories of Shiite Muslims’ revolt against Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Persian Gulf War and their abandonment by allied forces and torture and repression under the ruling Baath Party.
“It is apparent that winning trust is going to be an uphill battle,” Whitley said. “We did not appreciate what 12-plus years of fear can do to the people. They’re looking to see who hits them next.”
Hoping to ease some of the distrust and bring badly needed water into southern Iraq, the Royal Corps of Engineers has been constructing a pipeline to carry 600,000 gallons a day from Kuwait.
Whitley said the pipeline could open today.
On the Iraq end of the pipeline, he said, 67 tanker trucks, belonging to the military and international aid organizations, will deliver the water to distribution sites.
“The fact is, the water treatment plants and the sewage systems have been degrading over the last 10 or 15 years,” Whitley said. “The Tigris, in particular, is a floating sewer.
“At the moment,” he said, “there is no humanitarian disaster or catastrophe.”
But the situation could worsen if Iraqi irregular forces begin mass executions or if the war extends past April, when food stores will be exhausted.
Experts were worried that shortages of pharmaceutical supplies could endanger Iraqis who suffer from diabetes, asthma and high blood pressure.
Troops can handle only so much humanitarian aid, Whitley said, and they are eager for the United Nations and other international organizations to move in and take over the effort.
More evidence of hostility against Americans came across the border in Kuwait, where a man in civilian clothes drove a pickup truck into a group of U.S. soldiers standing outside a store at Camp Udairi.
Fourteen soldiers were injured. Military officials said they were treated and returned to duty. A 15th was being flown to Germany for more extensive treatment of a knee injury.
Other soldiers fired at the truck, hitting the driver in the chest and shoulder. He was taken to a military hospital in critical condition.
No explosives were found in the vehicle.
But an official with the Kuwaiti Interior Ministry told the Associated Press that the man “ran down” the soldiers deliberately.
He was said to be of Egyptian descent and doing electrical work at the camp.
In northern Iraq, intense U.S. airstrikes forced Iraqi troops to pull back and concentrate their defenses around Kirkuk and Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city.
Kurdish fighters joined by U.S. troops moved closer to Altokopree, an Iraqi-held town on the highway south toward Kirkuk, and Iraqi artillery fire opened up from a distant ridge. It blasted the roadside and surrounding fields.
Despite the barrage, the Kurdish fighters edged to within four miles of Altokopree, which is less than 15 miles north of Kirkuk, whose large oil fields make it an enormous prize for the Kurdish nationalists.
The Kurds want strong regional autonomy in postwar Iraq.
“More of the [Iraqi] soldiers are surrendering every day, so we expect they will retreat again,” said Kardo Ali, 28, a Kurdish fighter who was near the front. “According to the information we get from the prisoners, all the heavy trucks have been pulled back to Kirkuk, and even the officers have been left with no cars, so that they don’t surrender.”
Meanwhile, the Kurds, working with American troops, set up a new base on higher ground above Harir, at a former Iraqi army base in a fortress with high stone walls and turrets.
Military transport aircraft flew more reinforcements and equipment into the airstrip at Harir, in Kurdish-held territory north of Irbil, where paratroops landed early Thursday.
Farther north, American military trucks fell under attack for the second straight day by stone-throwing demonstrators in southeastern Urfa province in Turkey, where three misfired U.S. cruise missiles fell near separate villages last week.
In Sunday’s stoning, a 40-truck convoy was withdrawing equipment intended for Turkish bases. Turkey’s parliament refused to authorize use of the bases by American ground forces attacking Iraq.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
*--* Military totals (as of 5 p.m. Pacific time Sunday)
U.S Britain Iraq Killed 42 24 Unknown
Missing 17 0 Unknown
Captured 7 0 4,500
* Iraq has said at least 500 civilians have been killed. Two British journalists and an Australian journalist also have died.
On the Web
Go to www.latimes.com throughout the day for updated stories, photos and video reports from Times correspondents in Iraq and the surrounding region.
Zucchino reported from the 101st Airborne near Najaf and Mohan from the 3rd Infantry near Karbala. Times staff writers Tony Perry with the 1st Marine Division in central Iraq; Tyler Marshall in Doha, Qatar; Sam Howe Verhovek at Camp Udairi; David Wharton in Kuwait City; Mark Magnier outside Basra; Paul Watson in Harir; Esther Schrader in Washington; and Richard Boudreaux in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.