US has first major clash with Republican Guard
The clash with crack Republican Guard troops erupted south of Baghdad on Sunday night. Officers reported 200 Iraqis killed, wounded or captured.Updated: Mar 31, 2003 14:34 IST
US commanders reported their first serious battle with Iraq's elite Republican Guard on Monday as British commandos launched a major assault on the southern port city of Basra.
Coalition warplanes continued their pounding of Baghdad, targeting the regime's propaganda machine, as US commanders vehemently defended their war strategy, insisting they would "tighten the noose" before any decisive push on President Saddam Hussein's seat of power.
The clash with crack Republican Guard troops erupted south of the capitalon Sunday nightas elements of the US Army's 3rd Infantry Division massed east of the Shiite Muslim holy city of Karbala, said Colonel Will Grimsley, commander of the division's First Brigade.
Other officers reported 200 Iraqis killed, wounded or captured.
Grimsley said that although there had been earlier sporadic encounters with elements of the Republican Guard in the area, "this is the first serious contact."
Reports of the battle around Karbala, a Shiite Muslim holy city 80 kilometres south of Baghdad, came as US armoured units finalized plans for a decisive thrust towards the capital within a week, commanders said.
The 20,000-strong Third Infantry Division, the heavy armoured force spearheading the US-led invasion, has concentrated near the Euphrates valley town of Najaf, another 70 kilometres further south.
US Apache helicopters from the 101st Airborne Division, as well as British and US warplanes, have been softening up the area around Karbala where the Republican Guard's armoured Medina division was reported to be lying in wait.
The battle for the main southern city of Basra meanwhile began in earnest with hundreds of British Royal Marines launching a major assault to secure its southeastern suburbs.
Some 600 men from 40 Commando attacked Abu Al Khasib on Sunday in the first all-out British assault by a full commando since the Falklands War in 1982, commanders said.
The operation, which was continuing Monday, was intended to encourage Saddam's opponents to rise up against his regime and to show that coalition forces were serious about taking the city, which has been under coalition siege virtually since the war began.
British troops suffered an unknown number of injuries, some serious, although at least 300 Iraqi prisoners of war were taken and a number of Iraqi tanks, armoured troop carriers and bunkers destroyed.
But the Iraqis in the Basra region counterattacked later in the day when three patrol vessels attacked a Royal Marine landing craft on the Basra canal, 30 kilometres to the south.
The British vessel was hit and set alight by a rocket-propelled grenade and four of its crew were slightly injured. One of the Iraqi vessels was then hit by British forces with two Milan anti-tank missiles and sunk.
Whereas British forces have staged raids into Basra in Warrior armoured vehicles over the past few days, the infantry assault on Abu Al Khasib was quite different - a direct attempt to secure a significant suburb which houses 30,000 people.
"The planning assumption had always been that the advancing coalition forces would simply sweep past Basra and it would implode by itself," Brigadier Jim Dutton, commander of 3 Commando Brigade, said.
"It became apparent to me that we could do more than that, to get the message across that we can go in there and get rid of the regime.
"It could have a remarkable effect on the rest of the city and that is why the go-ahead was given for the operation."
The air blitz on Baghdad continued with the information ministry blasted by a missile as the US-British coalition worked to cut off channels of communication.
It was the second successful strike on the heart of the regime's propaganda machine after the high-rise building was damaged Saturday.
Iraqi television broadcasts were interrupted in Baghdad during the morning, but it was not clear if the latest missile had caused the breakdown. The state television compound lies near the ministry in central Baghdad.
Iraq's satellite television channel, monitored in Dubai, had managed to broadcast briefly on Monday with the usual diet of unwavering support for Saddam, but later went off the air.
US Central Command said a Tomahawk cruise missile was launched at the building near the Tigris river at about 2 a.m. (2300 GMT) in a bid "to reduce the Hussein regime's command and control capabilities".
Foreign journalists who were housed in a press centre on the ground floor of the ministry have moved out and the authorities have opened a media centre in a city hotel.
Baghdad's telephone exchanges have been repeatedly pounded in recent days knocking out services in some areas.
A pall of smoke was seen rising from Saddam's sprawling presidential palace on the banks of the Tigris river following at least eight loud explosions around the capital shortly after midnight.
More powerful blasts rocked Baghdad around 2.40 am and later at dawn, following a day of intense strikes on the capital's outskirts, where elite Iraqi units are believed to be concentrated.
Coalition warplanes also bombed the northern city of Mosul at dawn, the Arabic news channel Al-Jazeera said showing footage of columns of smoke rising from the outskirts.
US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and General Richard Myers meanwhile dismissed suggestions that US forces were under-strength.
Rumsfeld lashed out at reported criticism from some US military commanders that war planners had underestimated Iraqi resistance and had failed to send enough troops to Iraq.
The plan for "Operation Iraqi Freedom" was "outstanding," Rumsfeld said, adding that Franks had been given all the forces he had asked for.
"I think you'll find that if you ask anyone who has been involved in the process from the Central Command, that every single thing they've requested has in fact happened," Rumsfeld said.
Rumsfeld and Myers insisted that no US leader had promised a quick war, and warned that there could be a long fight for Baghdad.
"We will be patient and continue to draw the noose tighter and tighter" around Saddam's regime, Myers said.
First Published: Mar 31, 2003 13:56 IST