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US battles on to secure Umm Qasr

US forces used planes and tanks on Sunday in a battle to dislodge Iraqi fighters from the southern port town of Umm Qasr.

world Updated: Mar 23, 2003 23:09 IST
Reuters
Reuters
PTI

US forces used planes and tanks on Sunday in a battle to dislodge Iraqi fighters from the southern port town of Umm Qasr, where at least 120 Iraqi Republican Guards were reported to be dug in.

After two air strikes on the town by British Harrier jets, each dropping one 500-pound bomb and sending columns of black smoke curling into the air, some Iraqis could be seen waving white flags and surrendering.

As night fell US soldiers were still using machinegun, artillery and mortar fire in an attempt to flush another group of Iraqi fighters from a hideout, but a commander said that appeared to be the last fighting for the evening.

A US commander said there had been no US casualties in the battle and that two carloads of Iraqis had given up. It was "hard to tell" if there were Iraqi casualties, he said.

Captain Rick Crevier said the air strikes were aimed at speeding up victory, "It made sense for us to do this. Rather than send men in there, we're just going to destroy it."

The fight followed two days of claims by US and British officials that they had secured Umm Qasr, Iraq's only deep-water port and crucial for plans to deliver humanitarian aid to show Washington and London are serious about helping ordinary Iraqis.

On Sunday, a British spokesman noted that "fighting in built-up areas is a slow and painstaking process".

"We are in no rush, the overall plan stands as it is," spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ronnie McCourt said at the Qatar command headquarters of US and British forces.

Iraq's Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf reported on the fight with pride, telling a Baghdad news conference: "The heroic Iraqi fighters in Umm Qasr will throw the infidel British and American mercenaries to certain death."

GUNFIRE ERUPTS

The battle erupted after US forces came under fire on Sunday morning. Marines opened up with bursts of heavy machinegun fire in an area where they had set up a headquarters in the town.

Crevier, commander of Fox Company of the 2nd Battalion 1st US Marine Regiment, said a captured Iraqi officer had told them that 120 Republican guards were dug in.

Staff Sergeant Nick Lerna, who was with the ground troops attacking the Iraqis, said their opponents turned out to be a "much larger force than we expected".

The fight took place in a sandy residential area for port workers that is dotted with electricity pylons, cranes, and low sandy-coloured buildings.

The Marines initially called in two M-1 Abrams tanks to shell and machinegun the targets and later pulled back the armour to clear the area for the air strikes.

The tanks also used heavy machineguns to rake several targets, including a three-storey building in a compound where the Iraqi flag was still flying.

After an afternoon lull, fighting began again on the perimeter of the new port area, with US military sharpshooters taking shots at what they said was a group of Iraqi fighters in a compound about two kmaway.

Later, commanders used artillery and mortar fire to blast the Iraqi redoubt, where US officials said they believed about 20 Iraqis were hiding. After a sustained barrage of artillery fire, Crevier said he believed the target had been destroyed and that the action was over for the night.

The Marines said on Saturday that US and British forces had taken 400 to 450 Iraqi prisoners in fighting around the town, and in the nearby Faw peninsula, which controls access from the Gulf to Iraq's tiny coast.

US-led forces say they need the port to send in humanitarian aid to show ordinary Iraqis that they intend to help rebuild Iraq after their planned overthrow of President Saddam Hussein.

Military experts say the port might also help to resupply US-led forces if the war drags on.

First Published: Mar 23, 2003 23:09 IST