OUTSIDE BAGHDAD—Coalition troops closing in on Baghdad found resistance diminishing Monday while Marine commanders gave subordinates the best news in a while: It was no longer necessary to wear their stifling anti-chemical suits.
The order signaled that the threat of chemical or biological attack in defense of the capital had subsided along with the decimation of Iraqi forces. It meant that Marines could shed the thick, padded suits that had grown increasingly uncomfortable as desert temperatures reached into the 90s.
Units approaching Baghdad from the south Monday reported little resistance and increasing seizures of abandoned munitions, including anti-tank weapons as a new sand storm loomed.
The gains came a day after the noose tightened around the capital and patrols in the countryside detected what might have been the presence of a nerve agent at a captured military compound.
More than a dozen soldiers from the Army's 101st Airborne Division were decontaminated after they were stricken by vomiting and dizziness, and later tests by Army chemical specialists detected traces of sarin, a powerful nerve agent. Two subsequent tests overnight were inconclusive, authorities on the scene said.
"There's nothing to be alarmed at right now," Army 1st Lt. Kevin Bateman of the 101st Airborne said Monday.
Soldiers had been evacuated from the installation, where hundreds of gas masks and chemical suits were also discovered, and from a nearby agricultural warehouse.
"We do think there's stuff in this compound and the other compound, but we think it's buried," said Army 1st Lt. Elena Aravjo of the 63rd Chemical Company. "I'm really suspicious of both of those compounds."
Elsewhere in Iraq, British troops moved into the besieged city of Basra, found little resistance and said they would stay.
And in northern Iraq, friendly fire was suspected in the bombing of a joint U.S.-Kurdish convoy that killed at least 20 and injured at least 45. To the west, unknown forces fired on a convoy carrying the Russian ambassador and staff to Syria, and several were injured.
Marines examined a suspected terrorist camp at Salman Pak, a village along the Tigris River about 20 miles southeast of Baghdad. They took the ground in an overnight attack that they said destroyed 70 percent of the al Nida Division of the Iraqi Republican Guard.
At least 13 Iraqis were killed in the fighting, while others fled from trenches and sandbag nests on rooftops. Marines destroyed tanks, armored personnel carriers and buildings in the compound.
The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force attacked the camp after learning of its location from captured pro-Iraq fighters from other countries including Egypt and Sudan. U.S. officials believe the camp, which included the shell of a Boeing 707 apparently used to practice for hijackings, was used by Saddam train foreign terrorists.
"It reinforces the likelihood of links between his regime and external terrorist organizations," said U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, spokesman for the U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar.
The apparent desertion of Iraqi forces from potential battlegrounds—punctuated by the discovery near Baghdad of 16 abandoned T-72 tanks, Iraq's best—had military planners scratching their heads and hoping for the best.
" Where have these guys gone?" said Lt. Col. Dave Pere, senior watch officer at the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force's combat operations center.
" . . . It is my suspicion that there are wholesale desertions."
Marine intelligence officers also reported that all six of Iraq's Republican Guard divisions have been so decimated that they are rated only10 percent or less battle-effective.
U.S. forces continued to close their circle around Baghdad, even as they faced small attacks on their base at Baghdad International Airport. The first U.S. military aircraft, a C-130 cargo plane, landed there Sunday.
Warplanes and drones crowded the skies over the city, so much so that air controllers were added to guard against collision. And a massive buildup of U.S. Marines continued on roads leading into Baghdad's eastern edge, where intersections were commandeered and military vehicles blocked roads.
The U.S. Army controls access to Baghdad from the south and west, including the corridor to Karbala, Brooks said. And Marines control access from the east, including the corridor from Salman Pak. Together, he said, they are "denying any reinforcements or any escape by regime military forces."
Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, conceded that U.S. forces have not yet built an impenetrable wall around the city. But he said it was sufficient.
"If it moves on the ground and it takes aggressive action, it's going to get killed," he said on ABC's "This Week" program.
Still, at least one route remained open, and a senior U.S. official speculated that some Iraqi leaders might be trying to use it to flee to Syria.
To close the noose, elements of the Army's 3rd Infantry moved around to the northwest of the city on Sunday.
Facing scattered fighting, Army units passed remnants of an Iraqi force already devastated, apparently by air strikes or artillery. Blackened Iraqi tanks and dead soldiers littered the roadside. Dogs fed on some corpses.
"I saw a hundred dead bodies today, easily," said Army Spc. Vince Austin, 24, of Brooklyn, N.Y.
Outside the village of Albu Muhawish, on the Euphrates River about 60 miles south of Baghdad, experts investigated the possibility of chemical agents at a military installation and at a nearby agricultural warehouse where 55-gallon drums of chemicals were stored.
High-ranking commanders hastened to the scene, including Col. Joseph Anderson, 2nd Brigade commander; Brig. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley, assistant commander of the 101st Airborne for operations; and Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, division commander.
At the same time Sunday, teams were examining two missiles extracted from a mysterious pit near the town of Aziziyah, 50 miles southeast of Baghdad.
Marines were led to the site by villagers who said the Iraqi military buried something recently, then covered it with cement and a layer of dirt. The missiles were marked with a chemical symbol, but it was not immediately determined what they contained, if anything.
If chemical weapons are found at any of the sites, it would be the first evidence of weapons of mass destruction, a cornerstone of the Bush administration rationale for the invasion of Iraq and something that that eluded United Nations inspectors for months.
As if to underscore the U.S. military might that's being brought to bear on Baghdad, U.S. officials said Sunday their soldiers and armor killed about 2,000 Iraqi soldiers during a weekend raid on the capital.
Yet they also said they saw signs of how challenging the battle for Baghdad could be. Central Command said it believes Iraqi soldiers have moved into mosques and hospitals, including the "Mother of All Battles" Mosque and Saddam Hospital, both of which remained on the allied coalition's no-strike list to avoid civilian casualties.
In Basra, the site of fierce resistance from Saddam loyalists, British forces moved into the city and set up checkpoints for the first time.
The British 7th Armored Brigade, the "Desert Rats," moved toward the city's center on three routes.
" We had resistance initially on the way in, but that appears to have disappeared," said British spokesman Capt. Al Lockwood. " We're in there with tanks, we're staying and we're not just going in and coming out again."
In northern Iraq, a U.S. warplane mistakenly bombed a convoy of American and Kurdish troops about 35 miles southeast of Mosul, killing more than 20 people and injuring others.
Among the wounded was Wagih Barzani, younger brother of KDP leader Massoud Barzani, who was commanding a special division of Kurdish fighters.
Barzani was flown by helicopter to Bashur Airfield, where he was treated for a head injury and evacuated to a military hospital in Germany. A U.S. soldier also was among the injured.
Allied warplanes were providing air support for ground forces at the time, according to Central Command, which is investigating the bombing.
Also Sunday, four or five members of a Russian diplomatic convoy driving from Baghdad to Syria were injured when their vehicles were fired upon, according to Tass, the Russian news agency. After the wounded were treated, the group continued on toward the Syrian border.
Brooks, the U.S. general, said allied forces were aware the Russian convoy was leaving Iraq and that the shooting occurred in an area controlled by Iraq.
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In other developments:
_ The coalition commander, U.S. Army Gen. Tommy Franks, is to make his first visit to Iraq on Monday, a trip to Najaf, a senior defense official said.
_ U.S. military aircraft flew Iraq National Congress exile leader Ahmad Chalaby and 700 INC troops from northern Iraq to the southern city of Nasiriyah. They were being deployed alongside American troops.
_ A warehouse filled with human remains discovered by allied troops appears to have been a facility for repatriating the bodies of soldiers killed during the Iran-Iraq war, U.S. officials said.
(Gerlin of The Philadelphia Inquirer was with the Marines southeast of Baghdad. Lasseter of the Lexington Herald-Leader was with the 101st Airborne Division at Albu Muhawish, Iraq. Thomma anchored from Washington. Also contributing:
Drew Brown with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division at Baghdad International Airport; Ken Dilanian of The Philadelphia Inquirer with the 173rd Airborne Brigade at Bashur, Iraq; Juan O. Tamayo of the Miami Herald at Marine Command Headquarters in central Iraq; and S. Thorne Harper of The Macon Telegraph with the 3rd Infantry Division northwest of Baghdad.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ
GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): USIRAQ