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SOUTH OF AN NASIRIAH, Iraq—The scene would be almost peaceful, the aqua blue and amber skyline of this Iraqi city in the distance, the overcast sky, the slight rain. If not for the tanks rumbling below, the ruined building ahead, the huge explosions to the west and the men of the Army's 3rd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division preparing to fight again.

It is 2 a.m. Saturday, and after a full day of desert driving, these night fighters are about to move to their next objective, the Tallil air base nearby. Already, the flashes indicate the objective is being bombed or shelled in preparation. Artillery units fire constantly.

The day has been busy for the 3rd Brigade, which crossed into western Iraq early Friday and began its drive north.

Other units of the brigade—the 2-69, the 1-30 and the 1-15 battalions—had taken control of a bridge spanning the Euphrates River to the west of An Nasiriah. It was a key victory, ensuring that the span would be available for U.S. forces to cross the river on their march to Baghdad.

There had been other victories for the U.S. and British forces in southern Iraq. The Marines took control of the border city of Safwan, the port city of Umm Qasr and the Rumeila oil fields. There had been some resistance, and two Marines were reported killed.

There have been no combat casualties for the 3rd Brigade, officers said, though they have yet to total up Iraqi dead and wounded.

Twelve hours ago, 2:30 p.m. Friday, soldiers from the brigade's B Troop, 10th Cavalry, escorting an anti-artillery unit, came upon two truck transports of Iraqi soldiers. The Americans opened fire, and four of the Iraqis were killed before the rest surrendered.

First reports of the fighting for the bridge said that special forces had arrived early to seize it and that the bridge had later been captured. Then word came that the bridge was still contested and artillery had been called in. Later, commanders, who had been huddling over maps, confirmed the bridge had been taken. They said 30 Iraqis were taken prisoner.

What occurred at this overpass outside An Nasiriah is uncertain. In the darkness, a building that has collapsed from artillery or air strikes is silhouetted against the lights of the city to the north. A dog, perhaps wounded, can be heard yelping in the distance. Warnings go out that the area is not safe to wander in. The Iraqis could be laying mines. That's what some soldiers report was going on when the fighting took place.

Now the artillery units and their tracked vehicles have paused as the tanks rumble up the highway that will take them to the objective. Soon they will mobilize for battle again.

Not all was combat for the 3rd Infantry Division, however.

The division's 1st Brigade Combat Team began moving northwest Friday. It was to advance 63 miles but was hampered by deep sand and low visibility. The trip was supposed to take five hours, but nine hours after the combat team set out it had not reached Objective Lizard.

The column of several hundred Bradley vehicles, M-113 armored vehicles, combat assault bridges, bulldozers, M-88 recovery vehicles and other engineering vehicles was strung over at least 12 miles. A number of fuel trucks and support vehicles had gotten stuck, including a Patriot air defense battery with seven launchers and a command vehicle. Several vehicles also reported running out of gas.

The combat team passed only camels being herded by Bedouins, some of whom waved and others who fled. The column stopped for 15 minutes every hour for rest breaks and to allow stragglers to catch up. There was bombing or artillery fire to the east, but its purpose was unclear.

In southeastern Iraq the 4th Assault Amphibian Battalion of the Marines could see the fires from oil wells as it entered Iraq on Friday morning. Seven Iraqis surrendered. Two of them had no shoes.

Marines also captured the town of Az Zubayr, which receives all the pipelines from Rumailah and pumps the crude to export facilities in the Al Faw peninsula farther west.

Az Zubayr, a seven-target string stretching from the Rumeilah's well heads to two shipping terminals 30 miles offshore was "the crown jewel," of the oil infrastructure system, said chief planner for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Col. Christopher Gunther.

A jubilant Iraqi raised an American flag in the liberated southern port of Umm Qasr, a British Royal Marines spokesman said. Ironically, U.S. Marines took it down, following orders to avoid such displays, the spokesman added.

Australian forces captured an Iraqi patrol boat in the area, and discovered naval mines and other unspecified military equipment. The boat was being taken to Umm Qasr, where patrols checked the harbor for mines.

British troops were heading to Basra. A tank-killing A-10 "Warthog" jet loitering near Basra destroyed one Iraqi rocket launcher and damaged a second after spotting them firing two ABABIL-100 medium-range rockets toward Kuwait, Marine officers said. The two rockets were intercepted by Patriot missiles in Kuwait and caused no damage.

"There is no resistance in southern Iraq. They've stopped fighting," said Col. David Pere, senior watch officer at the Marine's Combat Operations Center, who added that Marines had taken at least 850 enemy prisoners of war so far.

"There's more white flags, but we just haven't gotten there," added the 41-year-old San Diego resident.

Whether that will also be the case at An Nasariah is still to be seen.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Drew Brown with the 3rd Infantry's 1st Brigade Combat Team; Patrick Peterson with the Marines' 4th Assault Amphibious Battalion; Juan O. Tamayo with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force; and Peter Smolowitz at Central Command Forward Headquarters in Doha, Qatar, contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

Iraq

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