- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2003

KUWAIT CITY, March 25 (UPI) — The battle of Baghdad is on hold, delayed until later this week by a howling sandstorm that cut visibility, hampered the combat helicopters and forced U.S. forces around Najaf Tuesday to wrap their tanks and vehicles in tarpaulins against the grinding sand.

"The storm will deepen gradually tonight, reaching wind speeds of up to 50 km per hour (30 mph) before moving to the east Thursday," Khalid al-Shuaibi, chief meteorologist at Kuwait airport, told United Press International Tuesday.

But the storm did not prevent the constant aerial bombing of Iraqi Republican Guard units around Baghdad, some of them using targeting information from British SAS and U.S. Special Forces teams on the ground. Approximately half of the sorties by coalition air forces were now being flown against the Republican Guard, focusing on the Medina armored division and Nebuchadnezzar infantry division south of Baghdad.

The Medina division, equipped with Soviet-built T-72 tanks, is seen as the strongest single unit on the Iraqi side. It also has a large contingent of highly mobile ZSU-23 anti-aircraft armored vehicles, firing radar-guarded quadruple cannon.

Despairing of the hoped-for welcome by liberated Shiite citizens in Iraq's second city of Basra, British forces declared it a "military target" as they girded for grueling urban warfare against Iraqi irregular forces in civilian clothes.

"We were expecting a lot of hands up from Iraqi soldiers and for the humanitarian operation in Basra to begin fairly quickly behind us, with aid organizations providing food and water to the locals. But it hasn't quite worked out that way," said British military spokesman Captain Patrick Trueman.

"There are significant elements in Basra who are hugely loyal to the regime", Captain Trueman added. "We always had the idea that everyone in this area hated Saddam. Clearly there are a number who don't."

Stiffened by troops for the Iraqi Army's Special Forces brigades, the civilian-garbed guerilla forces in Basra put up a nagging resistance. British troops dubbed the road to the bridge across the Shatt al-Basra canal "RPG Alley," after the salvoes of Rocket Propelled Grenades that came at them through the gray haze and drizzle.

The sandstorm slowed the fighting around the city of An-Nasariya, where U.S. Marines had secured the two bridges across the Euphrates river and the Saddam canal, even though Iraqi forces held out in urban areas nearby. But there were heavy artillery exchanges overnight, and Iraqi forces were using guns concealed in civilian areas, according to military sources in Kuwait.

The U.S. Marines pushed on across the Euphrates bridges Tuesday through harassing sniper and mortar fire and prepared to drive north parallel to a second large column of U.S. Marines from the south that was advancing on the central Iraqi city of Kut on the river Tigris. Kut was defended by another Republican Guard division, the Nebuchadnezzar mechanized infantry.

Two other Republican Guard divisions, the Hamurabi mechanized infantry and the Baghdad infantry, were stationed on then outskirts of the Iraqi capital. And a further two divisions, the al-Nida armored division and the Adnan mechanized infantry, were still located far to the north of Baghdad. The Adnan was moved earlier this month from Kirkup, near the Kurdish-held zone of the north, to Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, where it has come under heavy aerial bombing this week.

"Clearly they are not a beaten force," said Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff.

As the guerilla attacks on their supply lines threatened to take troops from the front lines, coalition commanders Tuesday began considering the need for reinforcements from the 4th Infantry Division, whose heavy equipment was passing through the Suez Canal Tuesday after spending three weeks waiting in vain off the Turkish coast for permission to land and open a northern front against Iraq.

To sail around the Saudi Arabian peninsula to unload at the port of Kuwait would delay the deployment of the 4th Infantry division for at least a week. But there may be a possibility of unloading more quickly at Saudi ports on the Red Sea if diplomatic agreement can be secured. The 4th division's troops are still at Fort Hood, Texas, and will have to fly in to be reunited with their heavy equipment. But as the most sophisticated unit in the U.S. Army, a test-bed for high-tech and computerized equipment, the 4th would add a heavy new punch to the coalition's increasingly overstretched forces.

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