- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2003

NASIRIYAH, Iraq U.S. Marines braved withering Iraqi fire and a raging sandstorm yesterday to cross this strategic city, heading north toward Baghdad and leaving behind a road littered with Iraqi corpses.
Officers counted more than 100 bodies but did not know how many were soldiers or civilians from the Euphrates River passageway caught in the cross fire of the heaviest fighting in the Iraq war.
The odor of burnt flesh filled the air and the road was strewn with bombed-out vehicles. About nine miles north of the city, a group of 40 Iraqi prisoners was seen in the custody of U.S. troops.
The bodies were discovered after a column of some 4,000 Marines ran a gauntlet of heavy grenade, machine-gun and mortar fire to cross two bridges over the Euphrates and continue their drive against Saddam Hussein.
As a howling dust storm cut visibility to 25 yards, about 500 Marines and some 50 tanks and armored vehicles held the 1.2 miles of dangerous ground between the bridges.
Helicopters circled precariously above, and hundreds of women and children scrambled from their homes and made a frantic dash for safety.
"It was about as dangerous as it comes," Cmdr. Ken Kelly said about the harrowing crossing of Nasiriyah, where the Marine advance had been jammed up since the weekend.
"As we crossed, a tank blew off, and it just passed us at the same time a helicopter gunship was raking a wall behind us," said Cmdr. Kelly, a naval officer attached to the Marines.
Some units donned their gas masks for fear of a chemical attack. Cpl. Steven Cassler, 26, who served in Bosnia, said this was the roughest situation he had ever been in.
"I would not describe it to my mother because she would be horrified," Cpl. Cassler said. "I would not need to tell my father because he was in Vietnam and everything he has told me was the same."
U.S. forces suffered new casualties, commanders said, but they gave no figures pending notification of next of kin.
The battle of Nasiriyah was the first trial for the U.S.-British forces of the nasty urban warfare which they had sought to avoid in their push to oust Saddam's regime in Baghdad.
U.S. troops searched house to house in the city where officials said up to 10 American soldiers had been killed over the weekend, others wounded and at least a dozen missing and presumed captured.
Cpl. Ryan Chavez said moving through the city was tense and tough. "The Iraqis are not wearing uniforms so you do not know who is the enemy," he said.
The Marines also came under cross fire from mobile Iraqi units about 15 miles north of the Euphrates River. U.S. forces responded with artillery fire, air strikes and about 150 light-armored vehicles.
The Marines were intent on driving northward in the direction of the city of Kut, southeast of Baghdad, to take part in a final push on the capital. U.S. Army infantrymen and the 101st Airborne Division were taking positions to the west.
But the sandstorm brought hundreds of tanks and amphibious assault vehicles to a halt yesterday, said another AFP journalist embedded with the American Marines.
U.S. forces resumed their assault on Nasiriyah late Monday after a bout of earlier fighting claimed the heaviest U.S. combat casualties since the start of the war Wednesday.
Heavy artillery fire was heard throughout the night and troops on the edge of the city observed firefights through their night-vision equipment.
The main opposition group from Nasiriyah's majority Shi'ite Muslim community said that U.S. air raids killed a top official of Iraq's ruling Ba'ath Party in the city.
"U.S. warplanes bombing Nasiriyah came under fire from Ba'ath troops, so they bombed them, killing a number of the Ba'athists including their leader, Attieh Shahin," the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq said in a statement released in Tehran.
Six Ba'ath Party members, including a regional leader, were killed in Zhi Qar province near Nasiriyah, Iraqi state television said Monday.

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