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US, British forces report gains in south; Iraqi minister denies opposition group's claim o

by Labor Activist (Jordan Times article via Al-J Thursday, Mar. 27, 2003 at 8:52 PM

Article from Jordan Times...via Al Jazeerah web site





US, British forces report gains in south; Iraqi minister denies opposition group's claim of uprising in Basra; two helicopters missing

Jordan Times, 3/26/03

BAGHDAD (AFP) — Severe sandstorms were Tuesday holding up US-led forces in their push to Baghdad but the coalition mounted ferocious air strikes in an apparent bid to soften up elite Republican Guard units believed to be guarding the southern approaches to the capital.

On the sixth day of the US-British war to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and control Iraq's oil wealth, the allied forces reported gains in the south, seizing the key, but small, deep-water port of Umm Qasr on the border with Kuwait and crossing the Euphrates River at the town of Nassiriya to press northwards.

In a multipronged offensive, the US Army's 3rd Infantry Division was closing in on Baghdad, and the 101st Airborne Division was moving up from the southwest, field reports said.

But their advance through the desert of southern Iraq was slowed by howling winds and swirling sand which dramatically reduced visibility.

Hundreds of tanks and amphibious assault vehicles from the 3rd Infantry Division were brought to a halt northwest of Nassiriya when a storm blackened the skies.

A US Apache — the US military's most fearsome attack helicopter — and a Black Hawk helicopter attached to the division went missing when visibility was cut to just 100 metres, said a senior US officer.

Further south, another dense sandstorm disrupted critical helicopter operations by the US 101st Airborne Division as it advanced on Baghdad, correspondents there said.

The capital was engulfed by swirling sand and smoke from burning trenches of oil, yet it did not halt the pummelling from the air of the south of the capital where Republican Guard units are believed to be stationed.

US officers said about 30 to 40 Apaches had already made initial runs against the Republican Guards as the prelude to what could be an epic tank battle.

But the unexpectedly tough resistance met in the southern desert towns which US war planners had thought would be a walkover has raised fears of what coalition forces could encounter in Baghdad.

"The toughest fight is ahead of us," General Richard Myers, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, told ABC television. "We know it will be a very tough battle.

"We also anticipate that (in) this next phase, as we get closer to Baghdad, that the resistance will get tougher," he said, adding the Republican Guard were "best trained, best equipped and reportedly the most loyal to the regime."

Casualty tolls remain unreliable, with the Iraqis saying 30 have been killed and more than 400 wounded in the bombings of Baghdad, while the American and British troops have sustained an undetermined number of losses.

US President George W. Bush insisted however that Operation Iraqi Freedom was going to plan.

"Our coalition is on a steady advance," he said at the Pentagon. "We're making good progress."

Iraqi officials have hinted they could try to draw US and British forces into dangerous street battles risking high civilian and military casualties — under the glare of the world's cameras with hundreds of "embedded" journalists riding pillion with the troops.

The resistance in Umm Qasr surprised coalition commanders, as small numbers of Iraqi soldiers using guerrilla tactics embarrassed the might and technology of the world's superpower and its military ally.

Overwhelming firepower and numbers eventually flushed out the final pockets of resistance after six days of fighting.

"Umm Qasr is under total control," a senior British officer said. "The clean-up operation is over."

In Nassiriya, a column of about 4,000 US Marines ran the gauntlet of heavy Iraqi fire to cross the Euphrates River in the city located about a third of the way north from Kuwait to Baghdad.

More than 100 Iraqi bodies littered the road north from Nassiriyah and the odour of burnt flesh filled the air.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced he would go to Washington on Wednesday for talks with President Bush and said coalition forces were advancing towards Baghdad in a two-pronged assault.

The cost of the war was escalating, as Bush said he would ask for .7 billion in emergency spending to cover costs tied to Iraq and the war on terrorism.

"We cannot know the duration of this war, yet we know it's outcome. We will prevail. The Iraqi regime will be disarmed. The Iraqi regime will be ended. The Iraqi people will be free," he said at the Pentagon.

The White House said .6 billion would pay for the massive troop deployment to the Gulf, another .24 billion will help shore up "antiterrorism" measures in the United States, five billion will go to aid key allies and .4billion will go toward humanitarian relief and reconstruction in Iraq.

The situation in Basra, Iraq's second city, remained precarious.

The allies initially said they had no plans to enter the city, but British military spokesman Group Captain Al Lockwood said that was no longer an option as the 7th Armoured Brigade, or Desert Rats, who are spearheading the drive to Basra, continued to face stiff opposition at its outskirts and beyond.

"We will probably need to go into Basra and meet any resistance," Lockwood told CNN.

In Tehran, Iraq's main Shiite opposition group said on Tuesday that people in Basra had risen up against the Iraqi army.

"We confirm an uprising is taking place in Basra, but we cannot give more details for the time being," said Mohammad Hadi Asadi, a spokesman for the Iran-based Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).

British television networks said earlier there were reports of an uprising in Basra, but these could not be directly confirmed by US or British military officials.

Iraq's information minister denied the reports.

SCIRI draws its support from Iraq's Muslim Shiite majority and has contacts around the country. Basra is a Shi'ite stronghold.

Umm Qasr and Basra are seen as vital to establishing a humanitarian corridor for nongovernmental organisations to deliver desperately needed aid to the rest of the country.

With Umm Qasr finally under allied occupation, officers said aid would arrive in the port on Wednesday after British and US Navy minesweepers cleared a shipping channel.

But concern mounted for the 1.2 million residents in Basra, where power and water supplies have been cut for several days.

The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) warned that at least 100,000 children there were at risk.

Blair promised the Iraqi people that the US-led coalition will "this time" not let them down in following through on its quest to topple President Saddam, adding his talks with Bush would focus on reconstruction.

"It is to discuss the humanitarian situation and the important and complex issues that have to be addressed for the post-Saddam era, that I intend to visit the US tomorrow," Blair said.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal announced that the kingdom had proposed a peace plan to the United States and Iraq and was awaiting a reponse.

"We have made the proposal and we are waiting for a positive response. We have not been rebuffed," Prince Saud told a press conference in Riyadh.

But US officials downplayed the significance of the Saudi proposal.

In other developments a second British soldier was reported killed in action overnight southwest of Basra.

Two other British soldiers have been missing since Sunday when their convoy came under fire, while 14 perished in two helicopter accidents and two airmen were killed when their Tornado bomber was hit by a US missile.

Anger at the war, meanwhile, has refused to die down, as hundreds of thousands of demonstrators again took to the streets of Middle East capitals to protest.

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