- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 25 (UPI) — British forces Tuesday declared full control of the port city of Umm Qasr and promised food and water would begin flowing into the city within days.

U.S. Marines still fighting around An Nasiriyah have suffered additional casualties over the last 24 hours, U.S. Central Command acknowledged Tuesday. The Pentagon on Tuesday identified nine Marines killed in action near that city on Sunday.

A punishing sandstorm compelled U.S. forces to ground their Apache attack helicopters in central Iraq Tuesday, slowing an assault on the Iraqi Medina Division south of Baghdad. U.S. forces were supposed to fly some 1,400 sorties over Iraq Tuesday and into Wednesday but the sandstorm would obscure visibility on tactical targets like Republican Guard tanks. Most of the missions will be against headquarters buildings, a senior U.S. military official said.

"It's a little bit ugly out there today. Weather has had an impact on the battlefield, with high winds, with some rain, with some thunderstorms," said Maj. Gen. Victor "Gene" Renuart, U.S. Central Command's director of operations at a press conference in Qatar.

Coalition forces have pushed 200 miles into Iraq on the fifth day of ground fighting and are within striking distance of Baghdad.

Earlier Tuesday, U.S. Marines from Task Force Tarawa secured a hospital in An Nasiriya that has been being used by paramilitary forces. They took 170 Iraqi soldiers prisoner and confiscated over 200 weapons, ammunition, 3,000 chemical suits with masks and a T-55 tank that was on the compound. Marines had been fired on from inside the hospital. No civilians were in the hospital when it was seized and no civilians were injured in the operation, according to U.S. Central Command.

The use of the hospital by combat soldiers while it was flying a Red Crescent flag, similar in meaning to a red cross, is a violation of the Geneva Convention, Central Command said.

A nasty battle continues for control of Basra where up to 1,000 Fedayeen militia forces, Republican Guards in civilian clothes and possibly elements of the Iraqi 51st Division have been fighting British forces, according to British military spokesman Col. Chris Vernon, speaking in Kuwait.

"It's quite clear elements of the Iraq regular army the 51st Division that was west of Basra have pulled back into the town," said Vernon. "Of what scale and size, we're not quite clear."

The 51st Division apparently surrendered to U.S. forces over the weekend, according to the Pentagon. The division commander was taken prisoner and most of the force was allowed to abandon their posts.

U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs said he believes the tanks were commandeered by irregular Iraqi troops.

"I have seen no reliable evidence yet — and it may be because we haven't seen it yet — that the 51st has reconstituted," Myers said. "We think the 51st has surrendered; that some of their equipment may have been used by the Fedayeen, perhaps, or other folks the Fedayeen brought with them."

British troops defeated the tanks in a battle, Myers said.

A reporter embedded with British forces told CNN Tuesday there is a citizens' uprising in Basra against the Fedayeen and Baath fighters who are now cracking down on the protestors. Coalition forces have dropped at least two large bombs on Baath party headquarters.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he expects many Iraqis — particularly the oppressed Shiites in Basra — to revolt against the troops and militia forces threatening them, but said they should only do so when coalition forces are in a position to back them up.

"I am very reluctant to run around the world encouraging people to rise up. People will rise up," Rumsfeld said. "But I hope and pray they'll do it at a time when there are sufficient forces nearby to be helpful to them rather than at a time where it simply costs their life and it's a wasted life."

Hundreds of thousands of Shiites were slaughtered by Iraqi forces in 1991 when they rebelled, under the ultimately mistaken belief the United States would back their fight, Myers said.

Early Tuesday, British forces launched a raid on ruling Baath party headquarters in the area. They captured a top politician and killed about 20 irregular troops and then quickly withdrew, Vernon said.

"We can do that with a fair degree of impunity," he said.

Coalition forces stationed on the al-Faw peninsula repelled an Iraqi battalion of fighters Tuesday that attacked it from the southeast. They called in air strikes, destroying 20 enemy vehicles including tanks.

U.S. and British forces have been trying to resist getting drawn into street fighting in Basra, An Nasiriyah and other cities but are finding the going arduous. Mostly irregular enemy forces are firing at them from the city centers, making a return volley too perilous to civilians to undertake, Vernon said.

Enemy forces are also firing at coalition forces from behind human shields and continue to feign surrender and to disguise themselves as civilians, Pentagon sources said.

"Across the outskirts of town, we are noting where there are opportunities to probe and delve in and destroy enemy armor and infantry as they appear, take out pieces with artillery on the edges," Vernon said. "Were not going to be pressured into this."

U.S. defense officials say they do not have a good handle on how many irregular Fedayeen forces are operating in Iraq. Estimates range from 5,000 to 30,000.

U.S. Central Command Director of Operations Maj. Gen. Victor "Gene" Renuart told reporters the strategy for dealing with the cities is to get them to sufficient security so humanitarian aid can be delivered. Coalition forces do not intend to occupy the cities or engage in the bloody house-to-house fighting Iraqi forces are intently trying to create.

"Our intent is not to siege the city, for sure; our intent is to attempt to return security to the city as rapidly as we can and root out those forces that would fight in the city and use the residents of the city as shields and try to create targets," Renuart said.

Basra is largely without water after the Iraqi regime shut it down, according to Renuart. The Red Cross has restored 40 percent of the city to useable water, he said.

"We have an additional water pipeline that will be run into Umm Qasr port, and then we'll begin trucking water up into Basra as soon as we are able to get it into neighbors and into water plants. So I'm hopeful that we'll get the water flowing in Basra very rapidly," he said.

Getting humanitarian aid into affected cities as quickly as possible is a critical part of the coalition strategy to win the loyalty and trust of the Iraqis.

"A very critical focus of our strategy is to be able to provide that aid at the same time that we fracture and destroy the regime," he said.

Coalition forces have found and destroyed what they believe are all six of Iraq's navigation satellite jamming sets, U.S. officials said. At least one was destroyed by an F-117 carrying a GPS-guided bomb.

"Actually, we've been able to identify the location of each of those jammers, and I'm happy to report that we have destroyed all six of those jammers in the last two nights' air strikes. As to have they had an effect on us, I'm also pleased to say they had no effect on us," Renuart said.

Iraqi forces have dug oil-filled trenches around Baghdad, according to U.S. Central Command. At least one has been lit. The smoke is a visual obscurant but would not affect GPS-guided munitions.

A U.S. F-16 fired an anti-radiation missile at a U.S. Patriot missile battery in Iraq Tuesday, destroying the radar. The Patriot had locked on to the F-16, the second time in three days the system mistakenly targeted a coalition aircraft. No one was injured in the attack. On Saturday, however, a Patriot accidentally shot down a British Tornado, killing the crew.

A U.S. military official said a "few hundred" Iranian-funded Iraqi-opposition forces, known as the Badr Corps, are now in Iraq. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Tuesday he is aware of their presence and that it is "unhelpful."

Coalition forces are demining the Khor Abdullah waterway in Umm Qasr and the northern Arabian Gulf, even using specially trained U.S. Navy dolphins, which use their natural sonar to find and mark mines with buoys.

Coalition air forces flew close to 1,000 missions against mostly Republican Guard targets Tuesday, Myers said.

There are close to 4,000 Iraqi prisoners of war. Iraq holds at least two U.S. prisoners of war, helicopter pilots who were downed and captured Sunday. The Red Cross has not met with the pilots.

Rumsfeld said the Red Cross would visit the Iraqi prisoners on Tuesday or Wednesday.

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