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Troops bypass Basra, encounter guerillas in port of Umm Qasr

KUWAIT CITY—British and U.S. forces are struggling to suppress and disarm guerrilla fighters in the port of Umm Qasr, officials said Saturday.

A British commander also disputed reports that thousands of Iraqis had surrendered at Basra. Col. Chris Vernon said that only about "a hundred" prisoners of war had been taken and that a single Iraqi brigade commander surrendered.

Vernon said one U.S. Marine and four Iraqis had been killed in fighting near Basra, but that defenders around the regional capital had "disintegrated melted away" before coalition tanks and artillery.

That made the city no longer a military objective and led to a decision to bypass it, rather than occupy it, 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."

Marine officers described the situation in Umm Qasr as semi-organized resistance from Iraqi troops in civilian clothes.

"We're seeing onesies and twosies popping up and shooting at us," mostly in Umm Qasr's dock area, said Col. Larry Brown, operations chief for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. "Someone will pop up over a berm and fire an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) and run away like hell."

The sniping has not caused any casualties, both British and the U.S. officers said.

Umm Qasr, a town of 4,000 people on the southern tip of Iraq, was among the first objectives seized by allied forces. It is home to Iraq's only port and is the entry point for 60 percent of Iraq's food.

Vernon, briefing reporters in Kuwait, described the opponents as "small groups of determined men" armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

"They pop in and out of uniform," he said.

Coalition forces are finding it difficult to distinguish between civilian and Iraqi soldiers, but British and U.S. forces were clearing the small town street by street.

U.S. and British forces hope to use the port for the delivery of humanitarian aid, and presumably military supplies.

Vernon said the flow of water, rations, medical supplies and medical assistance could begin flowing through the port in 72 hours.

He said the port was "pretty decrepit" and that no mines have been detected in the its waters.

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(Wilkinson reports for The State in Columbia, S.C.)

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

Iraq

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