- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 22, 2003

HIGHWAY 80 IN SOUTHERN IRAQ (AP) — The allied drive for Baghdad pressed northward Saturday, its advance unimpeded by lingering resistance in the cities of Basra and Umm Qasr. The biggest hurdle thus far: moving the massive military machine across the desert.

In Basra, they faced artillery and machine-gun fire. So rather than risk a bloody urban battlefield in a city of 2 million, the allies took what they needed - an airport and a bridge - and moved on, leaving British forces behind.

"This is about liberation, not occupation," U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks said.

In Umm Qasr, they faced street-to-street fighting against soldiers using guerrilla tactics. "It's easy to sit in a window and fire a rifle," said Lt. Col. Chris Vernon, a British military spokesman.

Some had changed into civilian clothing to blend in with the population, Vernon said, taking advantage of allied desire to minimize civilian casualties.

"The Americans would actually say, `We've seen this guy, we let him go, and here he pops up again fighting," Vernon said.

Some troops stayed behind to mop up, so the port at Umm Qasr would be secure for humanitarian shipments. Skirmishes continued; a dozen miles north of Umm Qasr, Marines engaged a couple of Iraqi tanks and light armored vehicles.

Echo company's 1st Platoon of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit saw action when it tried to clear bunkers near Umm Qasr.

"There was smoke everywhere. It's our first time in Iraq, and you see these four guys walking toward you with their hands up. We knew they were surrendering," said platoon leader Lt. William Todd Jacobs, 24, of Cincinnati.

"But then somebody shouts, 'There's two in the hole! There's two in the hole!'" said Jacobs.

The Marines reacted immediately, and shot both, then threw in a grenade that blew a plume of sand and black smoke out of the bunker.

For the first time, F/A-18 Hornets launched from the USS Kitty Hawk dropped bombs; in hundreds of missions in the war's first three days, they were called off targets because ground forces took them without a fight.

On Saturday, four Hornets from the Kitty Hawk's Golden Dragons squadron reported dropping seven laser-guided bombs on artillery pieces at Al-Qurnah, north of Basra, in support of the advancing 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said Lt. j.g. Nicole Kratzer, spokeswoman for the ship's air wing.

One pilot, Lt. John Allison of Corpus Christi, Texas, recalled the flash he saw on his screen. "That was it," he said. "I saw a big explosion. I saw it (the bunker) go away."

At Az Zubayr, near Basra, U.S. Marines and Iraqi forces battled through the night, leaving husks of Iraqi military trucks along the road.

One charred flatbed truck, windows gone and tires reduced to black dust, was still smoking. The hundreds of Kalashnikov rifles it carried were broken into pieces, their wood stocks shattered, their magazine clips strewn about the road.

The truck's batteries had already been removed by looters.

Farther down, the road was blocked by a truck which had been hauling an artillery piece until a tank shell crushed it. Another truck was still in flames, its driver mostly burned to ashes.

The Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Regiment engaged Iraq's 32 Mechanized Infantry Brigade, or at least what was left of it - according to the Marines, 60 percent of the brigade had deserted before the Americans even got there.

The remainder, about 300 men, fought from room to room in pockets of a dozen each against Marines scouring their barracks and headquarters.

The desertions were not unusual. Franks, the commander, said 1,000 to 2,000 prisoners were in custody, and thousands of others had deserted.

Not far from Umm Qasr, nine Iraqi soldiers fled Marine tank fire and drove their Nissan pickup truck up to a U.S. military convoy to surrender. Some waved a large white flag as they stood in the truck's bed; there were teenagers and older men, all dressed in civilian clothes.

Hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles lined Highway 80 - the road to Basra, nicknamed the "Highway of Death" during the 1991 Gulf War when U.S. airstrikes wiped out an Iraqi military convoy fleeing Kuwait.

The roadside was dotted with Iraqi tanks blackened by direct hits on their dirt bunkers. White flags flew over some deserted, dilapidated barracks, including one where a white cloth had been hung over a picture of Saddam Hussein.

At one of the barracks, Iraqis emerged to surrender, stumbling across a rutted field clutching bags of belongings. As Marines moved toward them, the Iraqis knelt in the field with their arms crossed behind their heads.

Elsewhere groups of Iraqi men in civilian clothes stood near the highway. Allied officers believed they were Iraqi soldiers who had fled their barracks and changed from their uniforms before Marines and British forces arrived.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Army's V Corps took Nasiriyah, northwest of Basra, said U.S. Navy Capt. Frank Thorp, a spokesman for Central Command.

Just outside Nasiriyah, traffic along the U.S. military supply route - flatbeds, Humvees and other vehicles - was so heavy it sometimes came to a standstill, a massive jam extending back to the Kuwait border.

There, much of the allied forces waited Saturday in long columns of vehicles to cross into Iraq. It did not escape their notice that they might be an inviting target for enemy fire.

"It would be tragic if the Iraqis had some artillery," said 2nd Lt. Sarah Skinner of Vassar, Mich., a platoon leader.

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