Marines In Bloody Battle With Iraqis

A U.S. soldier from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force stands guard at a burning oil well at the Rumeila Oil fields Sunday, March 23, 2003 in Iraq. Several oil wells have been set ablaze by retreating Iraqi troops in the Rumeila area, the second largest offshore oil field in the country, near the Kuwaiti border. AP

In what a defense official called "the sharpest engagement of the war so far," U.S. Marines suffered heavy casualties in fighting Sunday around the key Euphrates river crossing an-Nasariyah.

Iraq captured several prisoners of war in a separate battle, and Iraq paraded some of them on television.

The United States suffered 50 casualties in the ten-hour gun battle over bridges in the area with Iraqi troops — including members of the highly-trained Sedaveen militia. U.S. soldiers east of the city came under artillery fire. At least eight Marines killed in action were seen being taken from the scene.

There was fighting in the streets of the city, with some enemy troops shooting from rooftops and the back of pickup trucks. The Marines used tanks and armored vehicles, and called in A-10 "tank killer" aircraft. Iraqis fought to the death in combat that field commanders said was "heavier than expected."

In a briefing, the defense official, Let. Gen. John Abizaid, said Iraqis used "ruses" to trap American soldiers. Some waved white flags, then fired artillery, he said. Others dressed as civilians, pretended to welcome U.S. troops, then attacked them.

In other major developments:

  • National Public Radio reporter Anne Garrels said the mood changed perceptibly in Baghdad over the course of the day. At first, Iraqi officials were despondent. But word that Iraq's defenses had stiffened cheered them perceptibly.

  • A U.S. Patriot missile downed a British Tornado GR4 returning from a mission over Iraq, a British spokesman said. The two-man crew was killed.

  • At Camp Pennsylvania in northern Kuwait, an American soldier was accused of a rolling three grenades into a command tent, killing one of his comrades and wounding 15 others. The alleged assailant, Sgt. Hasan Akbar of the 326th Engineer Battalion, has not been charged with any crime.

  • One American soldier was killed and another injured in a vehicle accident in Kuwait, brining the confirmed coalition death toll from the invasion to 25.

  • A British television news reporter who disappeared in southern Iraq is believed to be dead, his employers said Sunday. ITN television news said reporter Terry Lloyd and two colleagues apparently were caught in a barrage of "friendly fire" on Saturday.

  • Iraq says an allied plane went down in the Tigris River in Baghdad. A U.S. Central Command spokesman in Qatar said no coalition aircraft was shot down and no pilot was missing.

    In an ambush near the fighting at an-Nasariyah, 12 soldiers went missing. The Pentagon was informing their families.

    Al-Jazeera showed Iraqi television footage of interviews with five American soldiers — four men and a woman. The soldiers gave their names, ranks, serial numbers, and home towns. Two were bandaged. Two identified their unit only as the 507th Maintenance.

    Asked why they were in Iraq, they said they were following orders. Four bodies were also shown; it was not clear if they were coalition troops.

    On CBS News Face the Nation, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that if those are indeed coalition soldiers being shown, "those pictures are a violation of the Geneva Convention."

    Abizaid chastised a reporter for Al-Jazeera, saying he was "very disappointed that you would portray those pictures of our servicemen."

    "I would say the pictures were disgusting," he said.

    Coalition forces hold thousands of Iraqi prisoners — many of whom surrendered — and these captives have been shown regularly on American television and in U.S. newspaper photos. But Abizaid said the interview shown on Al-Jazeera was meant to humiliate the Americans.

    President Bush, returning to the White House from Camp David, said he did not have all the details, but expected that Iraq treat any prisoners "humanely, just like we'll treat any Iraqi prisoners."

    The president said the campaign was proceeding well.

    "Saddam Hussein is losing control of his country," Mr. Bush 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."

    Asked if it the war was getting tougher than anticipated, Abizaid simply said, "No." But later, he added: "I'm certain that the land force commanders will make some adjustments."

    Abizaid said the invasion was having "good success" in air and special forces operations in and around Baghdad. Operations in the west "continue to put pressure on Iraqi units," while in the north units were being reinforced, he said.

    He predicted the coalition would find weapons on mass destruction later in the campaign. "We should not expect we would immediately come across it," he said. Previous reports indicated the search would coincide with the overall campaign.

    Two Iraqi generals have been taken prisoner and were providing the coalition with information, Abizaid said.

    Indeed, the invasion force continued to press deep into Iraq. Some forces crossed the Euphrates River and were halfway to the capital.

    The 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade covered 228 miles in less than 40 hours. It fought through Saturday night until dawn Sunday, destroying 15 vehicles, killing at least 100 Iraqi militiamen and capturing 20 prisoners of war.

    Elements of the 101st Airborne have leap-frogged over other units and are now about 100 miles from Baghdad. Special forces troops might be even closer.

    The progress towards Baghdad has gone so well that Navy pilots have had to improvise to provide more ground cover to troops below. F18E Super Hornets have become mid-air tankers; instead of carrying bombs they're carrying fuel tanks, reports CBS News Correspondent Cynthia Bowers.

    But there were still pockets of resistance in Basra and Umm Qasr.

    Waves of explosions rocked Baghdad again Sunday. Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf said 503 people were injured in Saturday's air strikes, including 106 in Baghdad and 366 in the southern city of Basra. He also said 77 civilians were killed in Basra.

    The International Red Cross reported 134 civilian injuries and one death in Baghdad through Saturday.
    • Joel Roberts

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