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Wednesday, April 2

Marines in Kut say Republican Guards have stopped fighting

By John Bebow | The Detroit News

KUT, Iraq - In a classic decoy maneuver, U.S. Marines surrounded the Baghdad Division of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard in this strategic city during the predawn hours of Wednesday.

"The Baghdad Division is completely irrelevant at this point," said Brig. Gen. John Kelly, assistant commander of the 1st Marine Division. "They are like punch-drunk boxers. They've stopped fighting. Their supply and retreat lines are cut off."

Kut, about 80 miles southeast of Baghdad, is the last major population center on the main road between Basra in southern Iraq and the Iraqi capital. Wednesday's swift action was a significant blow to Iraqi forces.

"We've breached the Republican Guard defenses of Baghdad," Kelly said.

Kut - a city of about 400,000 people that in 1916 was the spot of a series of bloody battles in which Turkish soldiers defeated British troops - is home base for an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Republican Guard fighters.

Marines used a small force to confront the Baghdad Division head-on from the south and east. Simultaneously, a larger Marine force of tanks, ground troops and artillery crossed the Tigris River and cut off the highway running west out of the city toward Baghdad.

The fight included exchanges between Marine and Iraqi tanks, but Marines in the fight had not reported a single casualty as of mid-morning, Kelly said.

By then, thousands of additional Marines continued a related northward push, and commanders on the ground boldly predicted they could get to Baghdad by the weekend, if top war bosses gave the go-ahead.

Marines also began a verbal assault Wednesday in Kut, encouraging Republican Guard fighters to lay down their arms.

"Please come out," Marines broadcast in Arabic over loudspeakers. "We don't want to kill any more of you. Remember how well we treated prisoners of war in 1991. Remember how efficiently we can kill you. Know that the people we have liberated are welcoming us. Come out now and live."

The call to surrender appeared to be a strategy to avoid the grisly firefights U.S. and British forces have endured in other Iraqi cities, such as Nasiriyah, Basra and Diwaniyah.

Senior officials said it was unlikely Marines immediately would root out Republican Guard units from Kut streets. Instead, officials said, the city likely will be isolated and bypassed so forces can concentrate on taking over Baghdad.

Marine commanders acknowledged that strategy would allow Guard members in Kut to "melt away" into the civilian population - and possibly present future security problems.

Two days after U.S. Army troops killed Iraqi civilians with cannon fire at a checkpoint near Karbala, Kelly said Marines are going to great lengths to avoid such carnage.

He described a marked contrast between two Marine encounters with Iraqi buses in recent days on roads south of Kut.

In the first instance, Marines returned fire on a bus, destroying it. Inside, they found the bodies of civilians mixed with soldiers and weapons.

In the second instance, Marines used small arms fire to kill the lead gunman on a bus, but resisted the use of heavier weapons. After convincing soldiers on board to surrender, Marines found several children and a pregnant woman in the seats, serving as human shields.

"We have turned off a lot of fire missions because our sense is we are too close to the citizenry," Kelly said.

Before surrounding Kut, the 1st Marine Division of some 20,000 leathernecks on Tuesday swept through the town of Al Hayy to the south. They encountered token resistance and what Kelly called a "wildly enthusiastic" populace.

In village after village this week, citizens have led Marines to weapons caches and abandoned operations of the ruling Baath Party, Kelly said.

In the town of Al Shantra, for example, Marines uncovered more than 100 AK-47 rifles, more than 50 rocket-propelled grenade launchers and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

"We're kicking over the ant hill," the general said.