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US closer to Baghdad; UK readies for Basra push

A contingent of Republican Guard headed south in a convoy of 1,000 vehicles toward US Marines.

india Updated: Mar 27, 2003 11:12 IST

A large contingent of Iraq's elite Republican Guard headed south on Wednesday in a convoy of about 1,000 vehicles toward US Marines in central Iraq — an area that already has seen the heaviest fighting of the war, US military intelligence officers said.

Brig-Gen Vincent Brooks told a press briefing in Qatar, however, that "we've not seen any significant movements of (that) type of force".

Intelligence officers with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force said the Republican Guard units were headed with a 1,000-vehicle convoy from Baghdad on a route that avoids advancing US Army forces but leads directly to the Marines who have been fighting in recent days around the city of An Nasiriyah.

In Baghdad, Iraqi officials said two cruise missiles hit a residential area, killing 14 people.

Brooks said that there had been fighting between different groups of Iraqis in the contested southern city of Basra, where British reports suggested there may have been an uprising against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's regime.

"We saw fighting in the city between Iraqis — some of them in uniform, some not," he said.

He added that Iraqi paramilitary forces were "shooting into the town of Basra" and compared their behavior to "global terrorists." "It was a very confusing situation, to say the least," Brooks added.

The intelligence officers said about 3,000 Republican Guard troops were spotted in one town along Highway 7 and 2,000 more at another.

The advance appeared to signal that the Republican Guard, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's best trained and most loyal force, was still prepared to go on the offensive despite several days of allied air strikes and missile attacks on its positions.

BAGHDAD RESIDENTIAL AREA HIT

In Baghdad, Iraqi defense officials said two cruise missiles struck a residential area. Lt-Col Hamad Abdullah, head of civil defense in the area, said 14 people were killed and 30 injured in the attack in the northern Al-Shaab neighborhood, which contains dozens of shops and homes.

Television footage showed a large crater in the middle of a street, a child with a bandaged head and bodies wrapped in plastic sheeting in a pickup truck. Hundreds of people stood in front of damaged buildings, some chanting "Oh, Saddam, we sacrifice our souls and blood to you."

The US Central Command said it was aware of claims that a market area had been hit and was checking the report. Meanwhile, a series of explosions could be heard Wednesday afternoon across the Iraqi capital.

Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed al-Sahhaf said the Iraqis has downed three drones.

A military source said the US Central Command in Qatar now had evidence that the Iraqi regime had wired many of the bridges around Baghdad for destruction.

EN ROUTE BATTLE

En route to Baghdad, units from the US 7th Cavalry Regiment fought a fierce running battle Tuesday and Wednesday with Iraqi forces near the central city of Najaf. According to preliminary reports from American military officials, US troops killed up to 500 Iraqi fighters, suffering the loss of two tanks but no casualties.

US units in central Iraq appear to be shifting their strategy because of the attacks from Iraqi militiamen. Instead of racing to Baghdad, some units are moving slower to clear out pockets of opposition.

"We're going into a hunting mode right now," said Lt-Col BT McCoy of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines. "We're going to start hunting down instead of letting them take the cheap shots."

TV HEADQUARTERS BLASTED

Hoping to cripple the Iraqi government's communications, the coalition attacked the state-run television headquarters in Baghdad before dawn Wednesday with missiles and air strikes. The station's signal was knocked off the air for a few hours before it was restored; regular broadcasts started on schedule after daybreak.

BATTLE FOR BASRA

Far to the south, British forces on the edge of Basra waged artillery battles with more than 1,000 Iraqi militiamen, who reportedly also faced an insurrection by civilians opposed to Saddam Hussein.

British officers said on Wednesday that the uprising became so threatening that the militiamen fired mortars to try to suppress it. British forces then silenced the Iraqi mortar positions with an artillery barrage, said Lt-Col Ronnie McCourt, a spokesman for British forces.

The British have been telling residents over loudspeakers that aid is waiting outside the city. Relief officials say many of the 1.3 million residents are drinking contaminated water and face the threat of disease.

Al-Sahhaf urged the International Committee of the Red Cross not to believe the claims made by coalition forces on Basra. "So I say to the people of the ICRC, don't let (them) deceive you and take advantage of you with these lowly means because they are murderers and criminals," he said.

Assigned to bring aid to another battle-scarred southern city, a seven-truck relief convoy loaded with food and water left Kuwait and reached the port of Umm Qasr on Wednesday.

Plans to bring supplies to Iraqi civilians had been stalled for days because of fighting across southern Iraq.

Also on Wednesday, Turkey's military chief of staff pledged to coordinate with the United States before sending troops into northern Iraq, emphasizing that there would be no deployment unless there is a refugee crisis or Turkey's security is threatened. Anti-war protests continued Wednesday in many countries, including two whose governments support the U.S.-led invasion.

In Sydney, Australia, police arrested 45 people after thousands of protesters pelted officers with bottles, chairs and tables grabbed from street-side cafes. It was the most violent protest yet against Australia's decision to send 2,000 troops to the allied coalition.

In Seoul, South Korea, police detained about 30 student protesters who tried to barge into the US Embassy.

First Published: Mar 26, 2003 09:42 IST