650 Iraqis killed at Najaf: US army

US troops backed by tanks have reportedly killed 650 Iraqis in the central town of Najaf which is the most lopsided victory for the Allies so far.

world Updated: Mar 26, 2003 15:47 IST

US troops backed by tanks have killed 650 Iraqis in the central town of Najaf, a US officer said on Wednesday, reporting what appeared to be the most lopsided victory of the Iraq war so far.

About 200 of the deaths were reported around a storage depot that has come under scrutiny as a possible chemical weapons factory, said Major John Altman, intelligence officer of the Third Infantry Division's First Brigade.

US forces invading Iraq have yet to discover actual weapons of mass destruction that Washington insists are being concealed in the country.

But US marines in Nasiriyah, about a third of the way to Baghdad from the Kuwait border, Tuesday confiscated more than 3,000 chemical suits and masks from a hospital used by Iraqi paramilitaries, US military officials at allied command headquartes in Qatar said on Wednesday.

Altman said there were no US casualties in the fighting around Najaf, a Shiite Muslim pilgrimage city, near which US forces are massed for a decisive push on Baghdad in the drive to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

"An estimated 650 Iraqis were killed over the last 24 hours in the Najaf area," Altman said, while US officials in Washington earlier put the Iraqi death toll at between 150 and 300.

He said the Iraqi dead included Fedayeen militiamen and fighters of Saddam's ruling Baath Party who battled with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) against US Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles.

Some 250 Iraqis were killed when the First Brigade secured a bridge north of Najaf, just 120 kilometers south of Baghdad, Altman said.

Another 200 were killed near the storage depot west of Najaf and the rest in various other spots. Altman said 300 Iraqis were taken prisoner and about 100 fled, some perhaps to take up positions as snipers.

A Pentagon official said a US tank was disabled by grenade fire in the fighting and two other vehicles of the US Army's 7th Cavalry Regiment were damaged in the firefight.

Elements of the regiment engaged the Iraqis after coming under RPG fire that damaged some US equipment, said the official, who asked not to be named.

Altman said the Iraqis were attempting to reinforce Najaf with thousands of elite Republican Guard troops from the town of Karbala, about 60 kilometers to the north.

A statement from US forward command headquarters in Qatar said marines operating in Nasiriyah, south of Najaf, seized a hospital that according to Colonel Ron Johnson had served as a storehouse for weapons used by Iraqi fighters dressed in civilian clothes.

In addition to the chemical suits, marines were said to have found more than 200 weapons, stores of ammunition and Iraqi military uniforms, and to have captured around 170 prisoners -- dressed in civilian-military combinations -- in the operation.

US forces had been fired on from the hospital in fighting with Iraqi troops in the city on Monday, the statement added.

The marines on Tuesday sustained heavy Iraqi fire but managed to cross the Euphrates River at Nasiriyah on their way north to Baghdad and a battle there to unseat Saddam.

US officers said Wednesday that Nasiriyah remained unsecured and that marines were still encountering hostile fire north of the city.

First Published: Mar 26, 2003 15:47 IST