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Iraqi troops regroup south of Baghdad

US Marines heading north toward Baghdad were warned about an Iraqi convoy moving south, putting allied forces on a collision course.

india Updated: Mar 27, 2003 11:59 IST

US Marines heading north toward Baghdad were warned about an Iraqi convoy moving south, putting allied forces on a collision course with Saddam Hussein's best-trained, best-equipped and most tenacious fighters: the Republican Guard.

In northern Iraq, an estimated 1,000 paratroopers jumped from low-flying jets into the Iraqi night on Wednesday, landing near an airstrip in Kurdish-controlled territory less than 48 kilometers from the Turkish border.

Further south on the battlefield, British and US aircraft pounded a convoy of Iraqi tanks and armoured vehicles streaming out of the besieged southern city of Basra, British military sources said.

A military intelligence officer with the US 1st Marine Expeditionary force ran from helicopter to helicopter, warning pilots that Republican Guard units in a 1,000-vehicle convoy were headed south on Highway 7, which runs southeast of Baghdad, toward the city of al-Kut.

However, US Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said late on Wednesday that a "few vehicles" were moving south toward Karbala, site of a major land battle. "They're being engaged as we find them," he said.

The Iraqi troops appeared to be taking advantage of the vicious sandstorms that have blunted US and British air power for several days to reposition their tanks in response to coalition forces approaching the outskirts of the capital.

One US military analyst speculated that the Iraqi command and control network was still operating, unaffected by strikes or electronic warfare.

US officials gave conflicting reports about the Iraqi troop movements. Briefing reporters in Qatar, Brig Gen Vincent Brooks said, "We've not seen any significant movements of the type of force" described. He added, though, there were "local positionings and survival positionings" of various units.

Intelligence officials offered the possibility that paramilitary fighters, called Saddam's Fedayeen, had been moving in recent days, travelling in pickup trucks, SUVs and other civilian vehicles. An Iraqi military communique issued on Wednesday reported the first battlefield action by Republican Guard troops, which it said attacked "enemy concentrations" in central Iraq, destroying six armoured vehicles and killing "a great many troops." US and British aircraft pounded a convoy of Iraqi tanks and armoured vehicles streaming out of the besieged southern city of Basra, according to British military sources.

The sources estimated the column at about 120 vehicles. Again, it appeared the Iraqis were using the sandstorm that has blanketed the region -- this time to sneak out.

British forces have ringed Basra for several days, exchanging artillery fire with forces loyal to Saddam's regime. The British say they are coming to the defence of inhabitants who rose up in the streets against loyalist fighters and irregular Iraqi units on Tuesday. British reporters have described citizens rampaging through the streets; Iraq has denied any civil unrest.

Basra had been largely quiet Wednesday, after British forces "neutralized" militia fighters who had lobbed mortars at Basra's residents on Tuesday, said Lt Col Ronnie McCourt, a spokesman for British forces in the Gulf.

The unrest came as the British tried to gain control of Basra and relieve the city's trapped civilian population of 1.3 million, which was fast running out of food and was in danger of outbreaks of cholera and diarrhoea from contaminated water.

"The bunch of desperadoes who've lived above the law rule the roost in this dictatorship, this regime that Saddam Hussein has been running," McCourt said.

The city's electricity was knocked out Friday during US-British bombing. That in turn shut down Basra's water pumping and treatment plants. The UN Children's Fund estimated up to 100,000 Basra children under age 5 were at immediate risk of severe disease. The deployment of US paratroopers Wednesday significantly increases the American military presence in northern Iraq, where some US troops have been working with Kurdish fighters to prepare for action against Saddam.

"Approximately 1,000 troops went in," said Lt Col Thomas Collins, spokesman for the U.S. Army Southern European Task Force. "I can only tell you yes, they've gone in. They're on the ground." The troops landed at an airfield called Bashur, about 48 kilometers south of the Turkish border in territory controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Party.

A senior Pentagon officials said the paratroopers seized an airfield at about 2100 GMT Wednesday. The troops did not encounter any hostile fire.

First Published: Mar 27, 2003 11:20 IST