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Forces push closer to Baghdad; Americans reported captured

NASSARIYAH, Iraq—Allied forces pushed to within 100 miles of Baghdad Sunday, but saw the first Americans captured by Iraqi forces and faced stiffening resistance.

Fighting continued along the front lines of American advances, and also behind them as fast moving U.S. and British forces encountered unexpectedly sharp resistance in several towns and river crossings they'd seemed to control.

The biggest battle of the war so far took place Sunday at the southern Iraqi town of Nassiriyah a day after much of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division rolled through.

On a day when bad news threatened to overshadow good news of allied advances, President Bush and his top military advisers all warned that more tough days lie ahead.

Iraqi forces captured at least 12 Americans and Iraqi television later aired videotapes of dead and captive soldiers. Two British fliers were killed when an American Patriot missile battery mistakenly shot down their Tornado attack jet.

At Nassiriyah, Marines fought through the day against dug-in defenders, believed to be Iraqi Fedayeen—a paramilitary force of Baath Party enforcers. The Marines suffered about 60 casualties, with as many as nine killed, according to U.S. officials.

U.S. officials denied Iraqi claims that an allied warplane had been shot down over Baghdad.

But hopes for widespread surrender by Iraqi commanders faded as U.S. Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, conceded that the Iraqis, while destined to fail, "are not a beaten force."

"Those who think this is going to go on for some time are right," Myers said during an appearance on ABC's ``This Week'' program. "The hardest part is yet to come. We expected the reaction we've gotten so far. The future will be a little bit tougher."

In a troubling new tactic, Iraqis used ruses to get close to allied forces and attack them, U.S. commanders said.

In one encounter, Iraqis appeared to be surrendering under a white flag before opening fire. In another, they acted as though they were civilians welcoming allied forces before attacking instead.

"Today was a tough day of fighting for the coalition," said U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks at the Central Command headquarters in Doha, Qatar. "But we continue our attack to remove the regime and to destroy the forces supporting it.

President Bush, returning to the White House from the presidential retreat at Camp David, said he was pleased with the progress and noted that it was sufficient enough that humanitarian aid would soon start flowing to Iraq. But he also cautioned that much fighting lies ahead.

"We're slowly, but surely, taking control of that country," Bush said. "I can assure the American people we're making good progress, and I also can assure them that this is just the beginning of a tough fight."

He said "massive amounts of humanitarian aid should begin moving within the next 36 hours" to the Iraqi people.

He also warned Iraqis to treat American prisoners of war humanely. "If not, the people who mistreat the prisoners will be treated as war criminals," he said.

American officials complained that videotaping and televising the questioning of the captured Americans violated the Geneva Conventions governing treatment of prisoners.

"It's illegal to do things to POWs that are humiliating to those prisoners," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on NBC's ``Meet the Press'' program.

U.S. officials later reminded American news organizations not to violate the same rules by broadcasting or publishing the faces or names of any of the 2,000 Iraqis now held as prisoners of war.

The casualties at Nassiriyah, where Marines fought to secure a bridge over the Euphrates River, occurred a day after it had been declared in U.S. control.

The Army's 3rd Infantry had marched through Nassiryah on Saturday, leaving at least one Patriot missile battery behind and 16 Americans to man it before they pushed farther north. Marines on Sunday found the missile batteries destroyed and the 16 Americans missing.

Soon, the Marines were under attack from small arms, rocket launched grenades and anti-aircraft weapons. An estimated 5,000 Marines from Task Force Tarawa, based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., fought throughout the day against the stubborn Iraqi resistance.

"It made me realize the reality of it," said Lance Cpl. Brent Rishel, a crew chief from Long Beach, Miss. "Every day it gets more real."

Fighting for the bridge slowed the northward march of a column heading toward Al Kut, about 40 miles south of Baghdad.

"They're extremely anxious to get things going," said Platoon Commander Capt. Dan Schneider of Springfield, Mo. "Our fight is supposed to be farther north."

Farther north, the Army's 3rd Infantry Division met determined resistance at Al Samawah, not far from the Shiite holy city of Najaf.

At the same time, an elite guard unit deployed to stop the 3rd Infantry appeared to be pulling back for a defensive stand nearer Baghdad.

U.S. intelligence picked up indications Sunday that elements of two Iraqi Republican Guard divisions, the Medina around Karbala and the Baghdad around al Kut, started pulling back toward Baghdad, according to a senior U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Medina had been positioned to stop the 3rd Infantry. The Baghdad division had been deployed to the east to block a parallel advance up the Tigris River valley by U.S. Marines and British troops.

"If they want to take Baghdad, they will have to pay a heavy price," said Iraqi Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Sultan Hashim Ahmed in Baghdad.

Also Sunday, allied officials said they were investigating how one of their Patriot missiles shot down the British Tornado GR4 as it returned from a mission in Iraq. Electronic signals that tell the missile operators whether incoming aircraft are friend or foe apparently failed.

"We must also recognize that we're working at the edge of the operational envelope," said British Major Gen. Peter Wall. "The risks will never be eradicated, but we're always working to ensure they are minimized."

And officials identified the soldier killed by a hand grenade while he was sleeping Saturday in a tent at Camp Pennsylvania in Kuwait. He was Army Capt. Christopher Scott Seifert, 27, of the 1-101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky.

In addition to Seifert, 15 others were injured, three of them seriously.

The suspect was identified as Sgt. Asan Akbar, an American engineer, according to George Heath, a spokesman for the 101st. He said Akbar was a "loner" with an "attitude problem."

He has not been charged with a crime.


(Peter Smolowitz, Jonathan S. Landay, Jessica Guynn, S. Thorne Harper, Fawn Vrazo and Diego Ibarguen of Knight Ridder Newspapers contributed to this report.)


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

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