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Saturday, March 22

Iraqis fire on U.S. troops moving toward Baghdad

By Sean D. Naylor | Army Times

Updated 7:45 p.m., March 22

AS SAMAWAH, Iraq - U.S. and British troops faced stiffer than expected resistance Saturday from Iraqi forces determined to slow their drive to Baghdad.

Nowhere was that more evident than in As Samawah, where the 3rd Infantry Divisionís 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment fought a daylong battle with Iraqi troops at a canal crossing near the southern bank of the Euphrates River. By dayís end, the squadron had killed at least 40 Iraqi troops and was in control of the bridge.

The Americans suffered no casualties, but at nightfall they were still receiving fire and their advance was slowed.

Near Basra in southern Iraq, U.S. forces battled for more than six hours Saturday with dug-in Iraqi soldiers. Seven artillery batteries - including one from the British Royal Horse Artillery unit - lobbed more than 1,000 high-explosive and bomblet rounds at the Iraqis. The infantry units were supported by strikes by bombers and Marine Cobra helicopters.

There were no reports of Marine casualties. At least 90 Iraqi soldiers were killed in artillery strikes as they sat dug in near a treeline outside the city.

At As Samawah, a provincial capital of 75,000 people 150 miles south of Baghdad, American and British aircraft had dropped tens of thousands of leaflets in recent weeks urging the Iraqi army to surrender.

The squadronís leading element, C Troop, arrived about 7 a.m. (11 p.m. EST Friday) after a grueling 120-mile journey across the desert and was met by a crowd of civilians waving white flags.

"They appear to be glad to see us," C Troop commander Capt. Jeff McCoy reported over the radio to Lt. Col. Terry Ferrell, the squadron commander who was sitting in an M-3 Bradley fighting vehicle about six miles away. Ferrell was wary. "I still think the threatís there," he replied. "Stay sharp, son."

Within minutes, there was a hail of machine gun, mortar and rocket-propelled grenade fire from Iraqi army regulars. Two tanks and two Bradleys returned fire and crossed the bridge. The Iraqis retreated to a military compound about 200 yards away, and the tanks opened fire. The Americans watched about 80 Iraqi troops run from the compound and into the town about half a mile away. Another 20 Iraqi troops in the compound loaded a mortar onto a truck and escaped.

"That mortarís been running around in the city all day creating havoc," McCoy said.

The American troops pulled back when they drew mortar fire and an ambulance marked with the red crescent drew up to the compound. The Americans, assuming it was there to treat wounded Iraqi soldiers, were surprised when a dozen armed soldiers in the black berets and green fatigues of the Iraq army jumped out to reinforce the compound.

The Americans fired high-explosive tank rounds into the compound and kept up a stream of machine gun fire. Two Kiowa helicopters blasted the compound with rockets.

In an ominous late-afternoon development, "a bunch of guys Ö kept taking women and children and forcing them into a bunker," McCoy said. He said he was too far away to determine if the Iraqis were wearing military uniforms. He said his troops had received no fire from the bunker, and he thought the Iraqis were "probably doing it so I donít shoot at it." He didnít.

The Iraqi forces mustered near Basra represented almost an entire army corps, Marine officials said, one that included more than 5,000 soldiers, 140 tanks, 105 armored personnel carriers and 90 large artillery pieces.

All along the northeast march toward Basra, the second largest city in Iraq, the scattered remnants of those forces burned into the night. Along one road, four Iraqi soldiers limped along in the night, raising their hands above their heads in a show of defeat to the passing Marines.

By early Saturday afternoon, much of the heavy fighting near Basra had stopped, and locals in the area began taking to the roads.

For the members of Battery M, who rained almost 200 shells onto Iraqi targets during the early morning fighting, a tense moment came mid-afternoon when they spotted movements that resembled a mortar team preparing to attack.

Instead of mortars, the Marines found impoverished locals resuming their daily lives.

A large family came out to greet the patrolling Marines, some of the children waving white T-shirts attached to plastic poles. The women offered water from a dirty jug poured into a metal bowl to the Marines, who patiently declined while searching in and around their mud-brick home for potential enemies.

In another portion of the blown-out compound, civilians looted the buildings of any valuables not destroyed in the fighting. As the Marines passed one pickup truck loaded with tables and chairs, the locals inside smiled and waved, some blowing kisses.

"Itís like anywhere, there are good and bad Iraqis," said Staff Sgt. Philip Glenn, 35, the batteryís local security chief from Jacksonville, N.C., who led the foot patrol. "I feel sorry for them. Those that deserve to be treated good should be treated good. Our worst poverty level is nothing compared to this."