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Thursday, March 27

U.S. battles militia en route to Baghdad

By Robert Hodierne | Military Times

DOHA, QATAR - U.S. and British forces fought pockets of Iraqi troops in scattered actions Thursday over a 200-mile stretch from the Persian Gulf to 50 miles outside of Baghdad.

Coalition officers say the unexpectedly widespread resistance has come in many cases from soldiers forced at gunpoint by Saddam Hussein loyalists to take on the coalition's overwhelmingly superior firepower.

The coercive tactics explain why 14 Iraqi tanks broke out from Basra at daybreak Thursday in the face of almost certain destruction, a British officer said. The British took out all of the aging Russian-made tanks used by the Iraqis without suffering any losses of their own, British officers said.

It was the second day this week that British forces destroyed Iraqi tanks around Iraq's second largest city. British military officials said their troops destroyed 19 tanks in a pair of actions on Tuesday night.

Further north, the American 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force fought a series of actions against Iraqi irregular forces. The coalition march toward Baghdad had been slowed by two days of vicious sand storms.

On Thursday, U.S. soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division continued streaming into southern Iraq, some making a grueling, 19-hour road trip to reach newly established supply bases with names like Exxon and Shell.

The elite troops were assigned the job of protecting the ever-lengthening American supply lines, which have proved vulnerable to attack by relatively small bands of Iraqi troops.

The coalition soldiers rode in lightly armored vehicles, their rucksacks strapped to the outside. The cramped compartment offered little comfort to soldiers trying to sleep between security shifts.

"Just another day in the infantry,'' said Pvt. Shaun Redlinger, 20, of Gastonia, N.C., who had hoped to arrive by helicopter.

East of An Najaf, 3rd Infantry troops were attacked by irregulars in vehicles. Reports that a large number of Iraqi vehicles were approaching turned out to be inaccurate, according to the American deputy director of operations, Brig. Gen. Vince Brooks. He said the U.S. troops ``soundly defeated the attack,'' destroying most of the Iraqi forces.

Action in the area was light during the day on Thursday, giving troops a chance to regroup and rest.

Brutal coercion

Brooks said forces loyal to Saddam are using increasingly brutal methods ``against Iraqi citizens showing any signs of tolerance of the coalition.''

He said field commanders in the vicinity of An Najaf have reported that ``Iraqi regime forces are seizing children from their homes, telling their families that the males must fight for the regime or they will all face execution.''

British officials said it is possible that fighting among Iraqis inside Basra was between Saddam loyalists and troops refusing to fight the American and British forces.

Also Thursday, Marines approaching Al Kut on the Tigris River fought a series of sharp skirmishes between that city and An Nasiriyah. In one engagement, Marine light armored vehicles poured heavy machine gun fire into an Iraqi army barracks for more than hour. Cobra guns also joined the fight.

Al Kut, a main road to Baghdad, is the site of one of Britain's most humiliating military defeats. In 1915, a British force trying to move from Basra to capture Baghdad retreated into Al Kut, where they remained under siege for 147 days before surrendering. The British suffered nearly 52,000 deaths during their three years in Iraq.

Coalition officials also said Thursday that an explosion in a crowded Baghdad marketplace Wednesday was probably caused by an errant Iraqi anti-aircraft missile, not a misguided coalition bomb. Iraqi officials blame the attack, which it said killed 14 civilians, on American or British bombs.

"Although investigations continue into this tragic incident, it could clearly have been caused by fallout from the regime's anti-aircraft fire or the failure of one of the regime's own missiles," British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said Thursday.

Brooks, the American deputy director of operations, said none of the weapons fired by the United States had gone off course.

"The rest of the story we just don't know, we may never know,'' he said.

In another development Thursday, soldiers with the Royal Irish Regiment found chemical protection equipment at a captured Iraqi command post in the Rumaila oil fields in southern Iraq, according to Adm. Michael Boyce, chief of the British military staff.

"There were numerous chemical weapons protection suits and respirators left behind and this kit was effective, well cared for and in good working order,'' Boyce said.

It was the second time in two days that coalition officials said troops searching Iraqi positions have found chemical protection equipment. On Wednesday, American Marines found thousands of similar protective suits in a hospital in An Nasiriyah.

"We have to ask ourselves why Iraqi commanders felt that infantry in this part of Iraq should be issued weapons of mass destruction equipment and protection,'' Boyce said.