- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2003

British armored troops were poised last night to enter Basra to seize Iraq's second-largest city, as the U.S. Army's 7th Cavalry unit felt its way north in blinding sandstorms and beat back a surprise attack by grenade-firing Iraqis.
The first sustained Iraqi counterattack emerged from desert grit near the town of Najaf, just south of Baghdad. The Iraqis, traveling on foot, assaulted the 7th Cavalry as its tanks and Apache helicopters hunkered down to wait out the sandstorm.
The Pentagon said the cavalry unit repulsed the attack using the 25 mm guns on its Bradley Fighting Vehicles and killed as many as 200 Iraqis.
It was the Army's largest ground battle since it left Kuwait last week on a high-speed drive to Baghdad and a showdown with the Republican Guard.
It was not clear last night whether the attackers were members of the Republican Guard or a band of paramilitary troops. No American casualties were reported.
With the war to oust dictator Saddam Hussein reaching the one-week point and a quick invasion slowed by guerrilla resistance, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had some sobering words for the American public.
"We're still, needless to say, much closer to the beginning than the end," he said.
Word came from inside Basra that the Shi'ite population, long oppressed by Saddam's regime, was staging an uprising against about 1,000 Ba'ath party irregular fighters, led by the notorious Fedayeen brigade.
But Mr. Rumsfeld cautioned Iraqi citizens about revolting against better-armed and fanatical Fedayeen combatants.
"I am very careful about encouraging people to rise up," the defense chief said. "I mean, we know there are people in those cities ready to shoot them if they try to rise up. We know there are people in that city ready to kill them if they try to escape."
After the 1991 Gulf war, President George Bush publicly urged the Iraqi people to stage an uprising. The Shi'ites in Basra and the marshlands of southern Iraq revolted, only to become victims of a brutal counteroffensive by the Iraqi Republican Guard, which survived the war.
At least three British soldiers have been killed in the ongoing fight for Basra.
In a tank battle, two British soldiers died Monday in a "friendly fire" exchange between two Challenger II tanks in the Queen's Royal Lancers.
"The soldiers were killed last night in a friendly fire incident from another British Challenger during a period of multiple engagements with Iraqi enemy forces on the outskirts of Basra," said a British defense ministry spokesman.
The 7th Armored Brigade, a storied unit known as the "Desert Rats" for its role during World War II in Britain's North African campaign against Gen. Erwin Rommel, is the main force set to enter Basra.
British military field reports indicated that the Fedayeen in Basra were deploying tanks in civilian areas and hiding among civilians. Because of this, British helicopter pilots returned from missions unable to strike Fedayeen targets.
A reporter embedded with a British unit said yesterday that a soldier had been killed in an ambush by Fedayeen.
Saddam-backed militia groups throughout southern Iraq have executed hit-and-run and sniper attacks on coalition forces, delaying what the Pentagon expected to be a quick capture of Basra, Umm Qasr and Nasiriyah.
They also have sabotaged Basra's water and electricity plants, creating a humanitarian crisis.
While Fedayeen resistance persisted in Basra, the coalition said it had secured the strategically important city of Umm Qasr, whose deep-water, demined port was to receive badly needed aid meant to pacify the region's large Shi'ite population.
Elements of the Marine 1st Expeditionary Force seized control of Nasiriyah yesterday. With a bridge at Nasiriyah rid of Iraqi guerrillas, Marine armor and infantrymen raced across the Euphrates River headed north for a planned engagement with one of the two or three Republican Guard divisions entrenched around Baghdad's southern flank.
An NBC reporter embedded with the 1st Marine Division said the Marines moving north from Nasiriyah were attacked by Iraqis, and a Navy hospital corps serviceman was killed. At least 30 Iraqis were killed in the resulting firefight.
The embedded reporters said that in Nasiriyah, the Marines found weapons, ammunition and more than 3,000 chemical suits at a hospital.
When all the pieces are in place, the Army's 101st Airborne Division, the 3rd Mechanized Infantry Division and the Marine Expeditionary Force will have their showdown with the Republican Guard, including the vaunted Medina division, around Karbala.
"The toughest fight is ahead of us," said Gen. Richard B. Myers, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman. "We know it will be a very tough battle."
Both the 3rd Infantry and Marines are well north of Nasiriyah, within 50 miles of the capital. The 101st is believed to be setting up western and northern fronts around the city.
"The Republican Guard are military, and that's where the difficult task begins," said Mr. Rumsfeld, distinguishing between an organized enemy and the sporadic resistance of irregular fighters in the south.
Intelligence reports suggest that as coalition troops get close to Baghdad, the Republican Guard will be authorized to unleash chemical weapons, most likely in artillery shells.
As the U.S. ground troops maneuvered in the sand, the Air Force and Navy continued their most pressing task: launching more than 600 combat jets on repeated strikes against Republican Guard tanks, artillery and armored vehicles.
The allies hope the strikes at day and night with satellite- and laser-guided bombs will reduce each unit's size by 50 percent or more by the time the Army and Marines attack.
The vast American superiority in night-vision technology and precision-guided weapons means war planners no longer need to mass overwhelming land forces to defeat an enemy.
In Operation Iraqi Freedom, the allied ground force inside Iraq stands at fewer than 100,000 to take on the 60,000-strong Republican Guard and 10,000-strong Special Republican Guard that defends Baghdad proper.
Mr. Rumsfeld defended the lighter force yesterday against criticism from some Army officers, retired and active. They complain that the campaign needs at least one more heavy division to augment the 3rd Infantry.
The plan's defenders said air power's dominance, plus the fact that the 3rd Infantry is reinforced by tank and attack-helicopter regiments, translates into a winning formula.
"I can't manage what people civilians or retired military want to say," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "And if they go on and say it enough, people will begin to believe it. It may not be true, and it may reflect more of a misunderstanding of the situation than an analysis or an assessment of it. But there's no way anyone can affect what people say. We have a free country."
Added Gen. Myers: "In the big scope of things, we're on track, we're on plan. We think we have just the right forces for what we need to do now. We remind people that forces are still flowing to the region."
Iraq's springtime sandstorms have turned into major obstacles this week.
The 101st Airborne delayed a further penetration of Iraq, while some weary 3rd Infantry soldiers parked their tanks and rested.
"Everything we do is conditions-based. It's not based on timelines," said Col. Michael Linnington, commander of the 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne. "If the conditions aren't set for movement on to the next step, we don't move. Otherwise, you overextend yourself and you are irrelevant. … I think when the weather returns, you'll see a rapid movement to the north."
Heavy bombers, including the B-2 stealth, again flew over Baghdad yesterday, dropping 2,000-pound bombs. Some fell toward the east, raising speculation they targeted Republican Guard units.
The allies bombed the transmitter of Baghdad's TV station, which the regime had used to show pictures of seven American prisoners of war and to present Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz as evidence that Saddam's regime remained solid.
War planners are trying to spare such "dual-use" targets, including electric power generation plants, to ease the strain of war for Iraqi citizens. But the regime effectively was using the media to rally citizens, so the coalition knocked out its signal.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, the Joint Chiefs chairman during Desert Storm, provided his war progress report to France 3 television yesterday.
"Obviously, there have been problems," he said. "When you get going in a battle like this, there will be ambushes, there will be irregular forces attacking, there will be difficulties in particular places such as there is now in Basra.
"But what is also important to note is that the Iraqis are not putting up a cohesive, coherent defense across all of Iraq. It's spotty defense.
"I'm quite confident that the strategy we have to take our time and to do it well is a strategy that will work, it will prevail and it will have its ups and downs."
Military officials say the alliance is holding nearly 4,000 prisoners of war.
Twenty-three American troops have been killed, 14 in combat.
The Air Force moved some of the wounded yesterday to a hospital at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany.
A senior defense official told reporters late in the day that commanders were facing three immediate tasks: subduing the Fedayeen, preventing and blunting any chemical weapons attack, and securing the northern oil fields before Saddam's forces could sabotage them.
"We still see the oil fields in the north as threatened," the official said. "It's possible that in one last desperate act, [the Iraqis] will blow those fields and create an economic and environmental disaster."
Earlier in the day, Air Force Maj. Gen. Victor E. Renuart of U.S. Central Command said allied jets had destroyed six Global Positioning System-jamming ground stations that the Iraqis were using to try to thwart satellite-guided bombs. Iraq obtained the GPS jammers from Russian companies in violation of U.N. sanctions.
The Air Force used B-1B bombers and F-117A stealth fighters in the strikes.
Gen. Renuart said yesterday morning that the coalition planned to launch 1,400 combat and support sorties in the subsequent 24 hours.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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