US forces face resistance in An Nasiriyah
Coalition forces encountered the fiercest resistance from Iraqi troops yet near this southern Iraqi city, with US troops suffering a double ambush that left about 10 US Marines dead and another 12 soldiers missing, US Central Command said.
The Iraqi military claimed 25 US troops were killed on Sunday in the action near An Nasiriyah, a strategic city on the Euphrates River 320 kilometers south of Baghdad. "It was a tough day of fighting for the coalition," US Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks told a briefing at the Central Command's headquarters in the Gulf state of Qatar.
Meanwhile, other US-led ground forces made a sweeping, flanking advance across hundreds of kilometers of rough desert terrain to come within a day's march of Baghdad. And allied troops were still trying to mop up resistance at Iraq's main Gulf port of Umm Qasr.
Speaking at the Qatar briefing, US Army Lt. Gen. John Abizaid said US Marines were ambushed near An Nasiriyah by Iraqi forces. About 10 Marines were killed.
In a second incident, 12 soldiers were missing after a six-vehicle supply convoy was attacked near the city, apparently after the driver took a wrong turn, Brooks said.
Abizaid called the fighting around the town the "sharpest engagement of the war thus far". Besides US troops killed, he said some troops were wounded but gave no number. Iraqi officials continued to claim they were holding their own on the battlefield. Defence Minister Sultan Hashem Ahmed disputed US claims that An Nasiriyah was seized, saying Iraqi forces repelled an attack from more than one direction. He said the Iraqis destroyed four tanks.
US Marines of the 1st Marine Division said late on Sunday they expected to move around An Nasiriyah rather than through the city on their march to Baghdad to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The Marines near the city built a combat bridge across the Euphrates to use besides a captured civilian bridge. Troops, equipment supplies were being moved over both of them.
Throughout the afternoon and evening, Apache attack helicopters flew over An Nasiriyah and over convoys of military trucks and armored personnel carriers moving across the Euphrates.
In Cairo, Egypt, Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri said as he arrived for an Arab League meeting that developments on Sunday - including coalition casualties and prisoners taken - demonstrated Iraqi resolve.
"What happened today showed that we're not surrendering easily," Sabri said. "It is proof we're strong and it is not an easy invasion."
"Clearly they are not a beaten force," said Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. "This is going to get a lot harder."
Separately, the US 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade covered roughly 370 kilometers in 40 hours to take positions about 160 kilometers from the Iraqi capital on Sunday. The brigade raced day and night in more than 70 tanks and 60 Bradley fighting vehicles to reach the Shiite Muslim holy city of Najaf. At one point the soldiers ran into an hour-long firefight, killing 100 Iraqi militiamen who confronted the Americans with machine gun-mounted vehicles.
The brigade's commander, Col. David Perkins, likened the thrust to another surprise military move - that of a Carthaginian general who caught the Romans off guard by getting his army over the Alps in 218 B.C.
"I'm using the analogy of Hannibal taking elephants over the Alps," Perkins said. "But instead of the Alps, there are big wadis (gulches) out there and the elephants are the tanks."
In Baghdad, explosions rocked the capitol early on Monday and anti-aircraft fire could be heard in the smoke-filled capital. Earlier in the day, a series of air raid sirens and explosions were heard on the outskirts of the city.
Iraqi Defence Minister Lt. Gen. Sultan Hashim Ahmed expressed confidence his troops can hold the capital.
"If they want to take Baghdad they will have to pay a heavy price," he said.