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Sunday, March 23

Southern Iraq city sees intense fighting

By Sean D. Naylor | Army Times

Updated 8:11 p.m., March 23

AS SAMAWAH, Iraq - Fighting between U.S. and Iraqi forces continued to rage Sunday along the banks of the Euphrates River as U.S. Marines and the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized) tried to maintain the momentum of their high-speed assault toward Baghdad.

In An Nasiriyah, Americans saw their costliest action so far - about 10 Marines were killed and 12 soldiers were missing, at least four of them prisoners of the Iraqis.

Sixty miles upriver in this city, the 3rd Infantry Division’s 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, fought hard Saturday to gain control of two bridges over a canal on the city’s southern fringes. It was a fight that showed just how hard this campaign might turn out to be.

By Saturday night they controlled both bridges, but were still receiving small-arms fire near the westernmost bridge.

Overnight and into Sunday morning, the rest of the 3rd Infantry Division used the bridges as it pushed north. But one unit - 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment - took a wrong turn. Instead of skirting the town’s southern edge, it got into a brief but fierce fight with Iraqi forces closer to the center of the city. Red tracer rounds could be seen arcing through the night sky.

The intensity of the resistance at As Samawah surprised the squadron commander, Lt. Col. Terry Ferrell.

"In my honest opinion, they have a much larger force than predicted," Farrell said. "I think there’s some kind of force unknown to me at this time that’s potentially heavy in nature. Every time (my helicopters) go north of the river we take heavy anti-aircraft fire."

He said he suspects there is something important in or near the town that motivates the fierce defense of this provincial capital of 750,000 people, 150 miles south of Baghdad on the Euphrates River.

Army Lt. Gen. John Abizaid, deputy commander of U.S. Central Command, was asked about published reports that Iraqi generals taken prisoner had told Americans there was a chemical and biological center at An Najaf, 75 miles to the northwest of where Ferrell was fighting.

"I will not confirm that report," Abizaid said. "We have two Iraqi general officers we have taken prisoner, and they are providing us with information."

So far in the fight, Ferrell estimated his squadron has killed at least 150 Iraqi troops. Three of his men have been wounded, none killed. They destroyed numerous military transports, three artillery pieces and a tank, he said.

The fight began Saturday, when U.S. cavalry troops had a fierce shootout with Iraqi troops in a military compound a couple hundred yards north of the western bridge across the canal.

Troop commander Capt. Jeff McCoy estimated that his troops killed about 40 Iraqi soldiers Saturday.

But a few holdouts remained in the compound, aiming sporadic small arms fire at nearby soldiers, so Sunday morning McCoy launched a platoon-level assault on the compound with a combination of Bradley fighting vehicles and Abrams tanks.

By the time his force got to the compound, McCoy said only "five or six" Iraqi fighters were inside. His troops killed three and captured one. One of the three killed was captured alive, but mortally wounded, according to McCoy.

"The other prisoner taken in the compound was unhurt, and surrendered when he pretty much knew his goose was cooked," McCoy said.

U.S. troops said they have gathered potentially valuable intelligence from those Iraqi soldiers who have surrendered.

One sorry-looking Iraqi soldier "low-crawled" from his position early Sunday morning and gave himself up. First Sgt. Roy Griggs said the prisoner was an enlisted soldier, who was wearing only a T-shirt, pants and socks.

Griggs’ soldiers first had medics check the prisoner out, then gave him food and water, "just to show we’re in good faith here." The treatment apparently had the desired effect. "He’s in good spirits," Griggs said. "He’s telling us to give him a gun and he’ll go with us to fight Saddam."

The prisoner said most regular Iraqi army soldiers want to surrender, but have been dissuaded from doing so by leaflets circulated by their officers and the Baath Party saying their families will be killed if they give themselves up. "They’re very concerned for their families," Griggs said.

The prisoner also detailed the locations of Iraqi military and political leadership facilities in As Samawah, Ferrell added.

On Sunday, Ferrell used air strikes to destroy the Baath Party headquarters in As Samawah, a four-story, block-long red brick building.

McCoy said that in his opinion most of the Iraqis who fought U.S. forces Sunday were irregular troops, not regular soldiers.

"We think we killed a lot of the regular Army off yesterday," he said, sitting in the shade of a Bradley fighting vehicle during a lull in the fighting. "Today we think we’re seeing a lot of their militia infiltrate through."

For the second consecutive day McCoy expressed his pride in his soldiers.

"I have without doubt the best cavalry troop in the world, and yesterday confirmed it," he said. "It’s very humbling for me to be around the professional soldiers that I have. Everybody did their job yesterday, to say the least."

The fighting around As Samawah has confirmed some of the U.S. military’s worst fears about fighting in an urban environment.

Yesterday, Iraqi troops appeared to be forcing women and children into a building near the military compound McCoy’s troops were engaging, in an apparent effort to prevent themselves from being shot at.

With the city still largely in Iraqi hands, U.S. forces here are facing a potentially even more bitter fight if they decide they need to take the town. Few are in any doubt about the potential challenges that would await them.

"I hate city fighting," said McCoy, glancing northward toward As Samawah.

Ferrell told his captains that there were suicide bombers in a compound on the north side of the town, as if to hammer home the message that they must be ruthless in combat.

"Do not hesitate to pull those triggers," he said. "Do not hesitate."