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Troops nearing Baghdad; U.S. soldier held in fatal grenade attack

IN SOUTHERN IRAQ _U.S. and British forces crossed the Euphrates River and advanced halfway to Baghdad, a capital jolted by ferocious new airstrikes Saturday and early Sunday.

Meanwhile in northern Kuwait, a U.S. soldier was in custody Sunday in a grenade attack on his own unit that killed one soldier and wounded 12 others, six of them seriously, military officials said. Eleven victims—all members of the Army's elite 101st Airborne Division—were taken to hospitals.

Officers said they believed that the unidentified U.S. soldier was seeking revenge against others. The victims' names and units were not released.

Outside Baghdad, Iraqis lighted oil-filled trenches around the capital in an attempt to shield the city with smoke from air raids. It didn't work. Baghdad was hit Saturday both day and night by missiles and bombs guided by systems that penetrate smoke and darkness.

U.S. commanders said they destroyed another of Saddam Hussein's palaces, this one west of Baghdad. Other airstrikes were reported in Mosul in northern Iraq.

In southern Iraq, firefights flared in many places as U.S. and British forces rolled north through the desert. Allied units bypassed Basra, Nassiriyah and other population centers and set many captured Iraqis free, lest they delay the rush to Baghdad.

And the rush was on: Elements of the 3rd Infantry Division advanced nearly to Samawa, about 150 miles south of Baghdad and about halfway to the capital from the Kuwaiti border.

"The outcome is not in doubt," said U.S. Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the allied commander.

He said he had "no idea" where Saddam was or whether he was alive. Franks said U.S. officials continue to conduct surrender negotiations with "senior Iraqi officials" from the military and government.

Iraq showed what it said was footage of Saddam and his second son, Qusai, at meetings Saturday with senior government ministers. "They expressed their satisfaction with the heroic stance of the armed forces," the report said. It was unclear when the footage was taped, however.

As action intensified throughout Iraq, the casualty list grew on all sides.

An American and six British soldiers died when two British helicopters collided over the Persian Gulf.

The Pentagon identified the dead American as Navy Lt. Thomas Mullen Adams, 27, of La Mesa, Calif.

Four U.S. soldiers, reconnaissance scouts in central Iraq, were wounded in firefights. Their names were withheld.

In addition, an Australian journalist was killed in a suicide car bombing in northern Iraq. It was in apparent retaliation for a U.S. air strike earlier Saturday on Kurdish militants who allegedly harbor al-Qaida terrorists in a remote corner of the region.

Three British journalists from the ITV network were missing and believed killed in southern Iraq.

Iraqi officials said three people died and 200 were wounded in the ongoing bombardment of Baghdad. The International Committee of the Red Cross said it knew of one dead and 100 injured civilians. The casualty reports seemed certain to grow.

Outside Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, U.S. troops in tanks and Cobra attack helicopters captured the airport and a bridge after battling Iraqi soldiers armed with machine guns and artillery. But they did not enter the city of 1.3 million people because organized resistance there "disintegrated," said British Col. Chris Vernon.

"Basra does not represent a military objective" because of the disappearance of Iraq's 51st Infantry Division, which "melted away," Vernon said.

"Military commanders do not engage in urban areas if they don't have to," he said. "The objective is the capitulation of the Iraqi government."

The United States and its allies acknowledged that no weapons of mass destruction had been found during the first three days of war.

Franks said special operations troops had been assigned to seize control of some Iraqi sites believed to contain chemical or biological weapons, but they came up empty, though some captured Iraqis have provided new and useful information.

"There is no doubt that the regime of Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction," Franks said. "As this operation continues, those weapons will be found."

In the United States, major antiwar protests were conducted in New York City, Washington, Chicago, Atlanta and many other cities and towns. In New York, some protesters broke away from the main group and skirmished with police.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters demonstrated in Britain, France, Germany, Chile, Indonesia, Egypt and other foreign countries.

President Bush seemed to acknowledge the dissent during his weekly radio address, though he vowed to stay the course.

"I want Americans and all the world to know that coalition forces will make every effort to spare innocent civilians from harm," he said. "Now that the conflict has come, the only way to limit its duration is to apply decisive force. This will not be a campaign of half measures."

Franks said some civilian casualties were inevitable.

"The nature of war is that noncombatants are injured and killed in a war," he said. "That's why the members of this coalition go literally to extraordinary lengths in order to be able to be precise in our targeting."

On the ground, many Iraqis welcomed U.S. and British troops as liberators, but this was not universal.

In the border town of Safwan, an angry mob demonstrated against U.S. airstrikes and a lack, so far, of humanitarian aid. "They are supposed to help us, not kill innocent people," one person said.

One pleasant surprise for allied forces: Thus far, the expected flood of refugees has not materialized.

In the port city of Umm Qasr, U.S. and British troops struggled to suppress small groups of resistance fighters, sometimes dressed in civilian clothing and armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

Coalition forces "are finding it difficult to distinguish between civilian and Iraqi soldiers," Vernon said. "There's been a bit of a fight."

He dismissed reports that large numbers of Iraqi soldiers had been captured and were being held as prisoners of war, though he and other allied officers confirmed that thousands of bedraggled Iraqi troops simply laid down their weapons and went home.

Franks said about 1,500 Iraqi soldiers were in custody.

Along Highway 1 in southern Iraq, U.S. Marines kept several dozen docile prisoners in an enclosure constructed from nothing more than wooden stakes and white string. Few had uniforms. One in four had no shoes. All were hungry.

And more surrendering Iraqis were en route.

"You can see them coming for a mile, in pairs across the desert," said Sgt. Shane Scara of Ocean Springs, Miss., a member of the 4th Assault Amphibian Battalion.

The allied advance was not without considerable complication, some of it caused by the harsh environment.

Nearly 20 percent of the amphibious assault vehicles employed by the 1st battalion of the 4th Marine Regiment broke down due to overheating and fuel shortages. A journey of 100 miles from northern Kuwait to a staging area in southern Iraq required 30 hours.

An Iraqi unit was reported to be about 20 miles away.

"I'm very concerned now," said Lt. Col. John Mayer, the battalion commander. "There are groups that do not like us."

The military encountered other glitches, some serious.

Iranian officials said as many as four missiles fired by coalition forces struck southwestern Iran, injuring several people and drawing strong protests from the Islamic republic. The Pentagon said it could not confirm the account, but it was possible that four missiles went astray.

Asked about conflicting reports of Turkish troop movements in or near northern Iraq, Franks said discussions were under way to find an "acceptable" role for such troops.

He said Turkey's soldiers currently were in light formations, moving in and out of Iraq. The Bush administration worries that Turkish incursions could spark fighting between Turkey and the Kurds, who crave autonomy and control northern Iraq.

In a related development, after three weeks of waiting for Turkish permission to unload tanks and other equipment needed by the Army's 4th Infantry Division, the Pentagon abandoned plans to move heavy armored forces through Turkey to open a second front along the Turkish-Iraqi border.

A flotilla of 20 U.S. naval ships steamed from Turkish waters in the eastern Mediterranean toward the Suez Canal and Kuwait.

The division's 16,000 soldiers remained in Fort Hood, Texas, on alert for duty in the war theater.


(Peterson of the Biloxi Sun-Herald is with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in southern Iraq; Smolowitz of The Charlotte Observer reported from allied headquarters in Qatar; and Merzer of The Miami Herald reported from Washington. Andrea Gerlin of The Philadelphia Inquirer with the 1st Marine Division in southern Iraq; Tom Infield of The Philadelphia Inquirer at the Pentagon; Jonathan S. Landay in Gomalar, Iraq; Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Tehran, Iran; Sudarsan Raghavan in Safwan, Iraq; and Daniel Rubin in Cizre, Turkey, contributed to this report.)


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

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GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20030322 Iraq war update