Ground Forces Meet Resistance

A convoy of U.S. military vehicles advances towards An Nasiriyah, southern Iraq Sunday, March 23, 2003. (AP Photo/Kyodo News, Takanori Sekine)
U.S.-led forces suffered their worst casualties of the war in two bloody battles near an-Nasiriyah that raged for hours before Iraqi resistance was vanquished. Marines, tense and sobered after the fight, were moving around the city rather than through it on the road to Baghdad.

Sunday's battles at an-Nasiriyah drew some attention from the relentless advance of the U.S.-led forces, now less than 100 miles from Baghdad after four days of the ground war. Outside Najaf, at the northern end of the advance, explosions and red streaks of missiles lit the pre-dawn sky Monday in skirmishes with Iraqi fighters.

Scores of American military personnel landed in Kurdish territory, as the move to open a northern front gathered strength.

"I think we're advancing more rapidly than anyone could have expected," said U.S. Maj. Gen. Daniel P. Leaf, who coordinates the coalition's air campaign.

But at an-Nasiriyah — on the Euphrates River 230 miles southeast of Baghdad, near the ancient town of Ur, birthplace of the patriarch Abraham — the allies sustained their worst casualties so far.

In the face of the resistance, Marines officials said they expected to sidestep an-Nasiriyah rather than fight to capture it — the same strategy they employed in Basra. On a cold Monday morning, tense Marines in a convoy of hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles clogged the road waiting to cross a pontoon bridge over the Euphrates outside the city.

American authorities detailed two bloody battles Sunday:

Marines encountered Iraqi troops who appeared to be surrendering. Instead, they attacked — the start of a "very sharp engagement," said Lt. Gen. John Abizaid, deputy commander of the Central Command.

In the end, the Americans triumphed, knocking out eight tanks, some anti-aircraft batteries, some artillery and infantry, Abizaid said. But victory came at a cost: as many as nine dead, and an undisclosed number of wounded.

A six-vehicle Army supply convoy apparently took a wrong turn, ventured into dangerous territory and was ambushed. The vehicles were destroyed, and a dozen soldiers were missing. Iraqi television showed five captured Americans and four bodies it said were of U.S. soldiers.

Four others were wounded and were evacuated later by Marines passing by.

The Iraqis were jubilant, claiming to have killed at least 25 Americans. "Our valiant forces were lying in wait for them, inflicting heavy losses on the covetous invaders," the Iraqi military said in a communique.

Separately, two British soldiers were missing after coming under attack Sunday in southern Iraq, the British Defense Ministry said. Officials would not specify where the attack took place.

An-Nasiriyah was a hotbed of rebellion against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in the Shiite Muslim rebellion that followed the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The Americans may have run into Saddam loyalists based there to keep a lid on the Shiites, along with some Republican Guard units.

The battles left the Americans sobered and wary.

Marines lay in the sand on either side of the waiting convoy Monday morning, pointing their M-16s toward the desert, hands on the triggers. Tanks pointed their turrets out to the desert, anticipating attack.

"It's gonna be a long day, I think," said one Marine, his eyes showing his exhaustion from lack of sleep but alert and fixed toward the sands.

In an apparent indication of renewed Iraqi resistance in the south, the U.S. military canceled a news media trip to Iraq's most productive oil field, which allied forces previously claimed to have secured. Marine Capt. Danny Chung said the Rumeila oil field was "unsafe" Monday. He gave no details, but there have been news reports of Iraqi attacks on the field.

Also, a trip for reporters to the southern city of Umm Qasr, where there was sporadic fighting days after the allies took effective control, was canceled as well.

The fighting backed up the long convoy at an-Nasiriya — where long columns were still arriving along the main road from Kuwaiti border. U.S. officials said their advance on Baghdad was not slowed though they refused to say when they would get there. "We'll arrive in the vicinity of Baghdad soon, and I prefer to leave it at that," Abizaid said.

Toward Baghdad, part of the 3rd Infantry Division had reached the area of the Shiite holy city of Najaf after a 230-mile, 40-hour sprint through the desert, killing 100 machinegun-toting militiamen along the way.

When more than 30 Iraqi armored vehicles were spotted heading toward the 2nd Brigade's positions, A-10 and B-52 warplanes were called in to hammer the Iraqis. The Army didn't have to fire a shot.

Through the night, skirmishes continued in the farmlands outside Najaf. Small groups of Iraqi fighters approached U.S. positions in pickup trucks or on foot, but were driven back by tank and artillery fire. When Iraqis fired rockets from Najaf at the Americans, the U.S. troops responded with heavy fire into the city.

Latest bloodshed not withstanding, CBS News analyst and retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Perry Smith believes the casualties sustained by both sides in the current conflict will be significantly lower than the Gulf War of 1991.

"Whereas the coalition, which removed Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991, suffered about 350 combat deaths, I expect that coalition combat deaths in this war will be somewhat less than that number," Smith said.

While he predicts there will much more ground combat, he believes the current conflict will end much sooner than the Gulf War, thereby reducing the number of casualties sustained by coalition troops.

"I expect that historians will probably label this war the "Two Week War" - one week to capture all of the country with the exception of Baghdad and Tikrit and another week to root out the last vestiges of support in those two cities," he says

During the Gulf War of 1991, about 10,000 Iraqi soldiers and 2,500 civilians were killed.

The high use of precision weapons, Smith said, will help reduce civilian casualties considerably.

Navy warships deployed in the eastern Mediterranean fired dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles at targets in Iraq on Sunday for the first time since the war's start.

In western Iraq, Abizaid said, the forces went after Iraqi logistical targets, command and control facilities and commando units.

Authorities said the number of Iraqi prisoners in allied custody was about 2,000. About 200 were being held at the Tillil Air Base, a dilapidated complex near an-Nasiriyah.

In northern Iraq, coalition warplanes bombed a military barracks on Monday, prompting frightened residents to flee the area as huge plumes of smoke choked the skies.

At least six bombs struck Iraqi positions with such force that the ground shook and windows were shattered about 3 miles away in the city of Chamchamal.

A small number of residents who had not yet fled the area started to pack up and leave. Cars, buses and taxis streamed into the main road out of the town.

"People are evacuating, but not because of the bombing. They are afraid Saddam will respond with chemical weapons," said Ahmad Qafoor, an school teacher.

Warplanes continued to fly overhead after the first wave of bombings that struck the Bani Maqem barracks, close to the line that separates the Kurdish-held area, including Chamchamal, from territory under the control of Saddam.

In the nearby village of Shoresh, civil servant Ali Nouri Karim, said he spotted Iraqi soldiers evacuating the area and pulling people into ambulances.

Local officials said there were no signs of defecting soldiers. A week ago on Sunday, two soldiers tried to defect but were shot to death, according to Delshad Jalal, a local commander of the Peshmerga, or Kurdish soldiers.

The Americans bombed the entire corridor between Chamchamal and Kirkuk, said Rostam Kirkuki, a top Kurdish military official. Heavy bombing was also heard Monday in the direction of Kirkuk — a key oil center — for at least 15 minutes as warplanes flew overhead.

Minutes before the bombings in Chamchamal, several loud explosions heard from the direction of Qara Hanjir, according to Mohammed Omar Mohammed, a Kurdish soldier.

Qara Hanjir is situated between Chamchamal and Kirkuk and is the site of an Iraq military barracks and command post.