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Monday, March 24

U.S., British forces press toward Baghdad

By Robert Hodierne | Military Times

DOHA, Qatar — British Royal Marines worked to gain control of Iraq’s largest southern town on Monday as U.S. Marines and soldiers continued sweeping north up the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys toward Baghdad.

"Progress toward our objectives has been rapid and in some cases dramatic," Gen. Tommy Franks, Central Command’s chief, said at a press briefing.

U.S. Marines pushed north from An Nasiriyah, a major crossroads city on the Euphrates and the site Sunday of an ambush that killed 10 Marines.

The Army’s 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized) was also pushing north along the Euphrates river toward Baghdad.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair told Parliament that they will soon encounter the Medina Division of the Republican Guard, among the most elite of Saddam Hussein’s troops.

"This plainly will be a crucial moment," Blair said.

A preview of how tough the going will be came Monday when an attack by what Franks described as 30 to 40 Apache helicopters ran into heavy small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire near the town of Karbala about 50 miles southwest of Baghdad. The helicopters were attacking Republican Guard positions, Franks said, and one was shot down. "The fate of the (two-man) crew is uncertain right now," he said.

The Iraqi government said on state-run television that it had shot down two helicopters and showed video of one. It also said it had captured American chopper pilots.

Karbala, on the west bank of the Euphrates, would appear to be in the path of the advancing 3rd Infantry. Army Times writer Sean D. Naylor, traveling with that division’s cavalry, was told by officers in the field that one tank crew member was killed by a three-man sniper team Monday. Two members of the sniper team were killed and the third taken prisoner, Naylor said.

Near Basra, the largest city in the south, British troops were encountering what a military spokesman described as "pockets of resistance." As a result, the British 7th Armoured Brigade, the Desert Rats, was "consolidating its position" outside the town and "regrouping before any kind of action," a British spokeswoman said. On Monday, a British soldier was killed near the city and two are missing, British officials said.

The British military spokeswoman, Lt. Cmdr. Emma Thomas, said resistance in the city came from the militia Fedayeen, Republican Guard troops and members of Iraq’s Special Security forces. These elements, she said, held a favored position in Saddam Hussein's regime. "Their future relies on the regime continuing," she said. "They have nothing to lose by continuing to fight."

Thomas said many of those fighting the British were dressed in civilian clothes.

In Baghdad, Iraq’s minister of Information Tariq Aziz said U.S. and British forces were surprised to be received "by bullets, not flowers."

Aziz also denied coalition claims that they controlled An Nasiriyah.

Franks acknowledged that Basra and An Nasiriyah were not under coalition control.

"We’ve intentionally bypassed enemy formations to include paramilitary and the Fedayeen (Saddam's most trusted paramilitary militia), and so you can expect that our cleanup operations are going to be ongoing for days in the future," he said.

"We will fight this on our terms," Franks said. He said his forces know where the pockets are and they will take care of them "on a timeline that makes sense to us."

That timeline, according to one Marine war planner, continues to be short. "We don’t have plans beyond a month," he said.

Franks also said that "demining operations have cleared about half of the channel up to Umm Qasr," Iraq’s only seaport. "A number of humanitarian assistance ships are loaded and will begin to deliver needed humanitarian assistance — food, water, medicine to Iraqis within the next few days," Franks said. That aid will flow through Umm Qasr and make its way to Basra, Franks said.

He added, "I think that what you will find is that the people of Basra will, in the days ahead, be able to have more access to food and more access to water than they have had in decades. I believe within a few days you’ll see that occur in Umm Qasr."