- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 22, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq, March 22 (UPI) — Iraq said Saturday that Iraqi tribal fighters and members of the ruling Baath Party destroyed five U.S. tanks and a number of military vehicles in battles in the Bat-ha region between the cities of al-Nasseria and Samawah south of Iraq.

Information Minister Mohammad Saeed al-Sahhaf told reporters in Baghdad, that Iraqi tribal fighters were also fiercely fighting U.S. and British columns south of Nasseria, 350 kilometers south of Baghdad, and Souq al-Shiyoukh.

"The U.S. forces in Nasseria had to retreat because of the Iraqi fighters' fire, and fighting between the two sides is fiercely continuing until this moment," said al-Sahhaf.

Al-Sahhaf denied in his daily briefing reports that U.S and British forces had taken control of the port of Um Qasr and the strategic city of Faw in the deep south of Iraq.

He said: "The invading forces did not succeed in penetrating Um Qasr," which overlooks the Persian Gulf.

The minister, dressed in the military-styled uniform of the ruling Baath Party, added that the Iraqi forces were "fixed in their positions," denying that any Iraqi soldier had been taken prisoner by the U.S. and British forces.

He accused the forces of kidnapping Iraqi civilians and filming them on television as Iraqi prisoners of war "after these forces succeeded in putting a foothold in the city of Faw."

He insisted that Iraqi artillery was "until this moment pounding the American and British forces in that area."

On the damage from Friday night's intensive U.S.-British bombardment of Baghdad, al-Sahhaf said 207 Iraqi civilians were injured, most of them women and children who were now being treated in five different hospitals in the capital.

Meanwhile, the Information Ministry organized a tour for journalists to these hospitals to visit the victims of the air strikes that resumed at dawn Saturday, in which loud explosions were heard in a distance from the center of Baghdad.

The Iraqi minister did not specify the sites that were targeted by the latest air strikes on Baghdad, but he took journalists to see the damage inflicted on al-Salam guest palace, where official guests are accommodated.

On how Iraq would treat U.S. and British soldiers and officers if they were captured, al-Sahhaf said that President Saddam Hussein had ordered they be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention and international laws, "not as mercenaries or war criminals."

Until Saturday, the minister had repeatedly said that his country would deal with the allied invading forces as "mercenaries and war criminals."

In the meantime, an Iraqi military spokesman denied Saturday morning what Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said that the commander of the Iraqi 51st Division and his deputy had surrendered to American forces in southern Iraq.

Reading from a prepared statement, the spokesman told journalists that the fighters of this unit were "now courageously fighting the enemy and inflicting huge losses on them."

He described Rumsfeld's statements as "part of the psychological war launched by the United States and Britain against Iraq, which is aimed at affecting the morale of the Iraqi fighters."

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