NEAR NASIRIYAH, Iraq—A rippling yellow curtain of sandstorms slowed—but did not halt—the coalition's advance on Baghdad as U.S. troops battled a large enemy force Tuesday, killing hundreds of Iraqis on the road to the capital.
In Basra, the nation's second largest city, hazy reports emerged of a possible uprising against Saddam Hussein.
Near Najaf, about 100 miles southwest of Baghdad, the Army's 7th Cavalry Regiment came under heavy fire from Iraqis armed with rocket-propelled grenades, according to a senior defense official at the Pentagon.
"We did not engage them," he said. "They engaged us."
Details were sketchy, but the U.S. troops reportedly repelled the attack, killing as many as 300 Iraqi fighters. No U.S. casualties were immediately reported in the engagement.
With what could be the most decisive battle of the war looming over the horizon in Baghdad, more U.S. troops closed in on the city. Artillery pounded Republican Guard positions that stood in the way. Airstrikes battered Iraqi missile sites just outside the capital.
And nearly everyone cursed and endured the storm. "It looks like it's raining sand," said Marine Capt. Neil Murphy.
As supplies of food, water and other necessities dwindled in Basra, the British media reported a popular uprising there. Most of the city's 1.3 million people are Shiite Muslims who historically have chafed under Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime.
The nature of the rebellion was not clear. Unconfirmed reports claimed that thousands of residents rampaged through the city Tuesday evening, setting fires. The British Broadcasting Corp. said Iraqi troops fired mortar rounds at defiant civilians and, in response, British artillery bombarded the 1,000 Iraqi paramilitary troops there.
British military officials, with limited access to Basra, said the situation was difficult to assess. They acknowledged some form of rebellion there, but said its scope, duration, targets and leaders were unknown.
Still, British forces on the edge of Basra launched attacks to support any insurrection.
"It is in our interest to ensure any uprising must succeed," said British Army spokesman Col. Chris Vernon.
Two British soldiers were killed by friendly fire near Basra when their tank was mistakenly targeted by another British tank, officials said.
Iraqi officials denied that a Shiite rebellion was under way, and Saddam again sought to rally his people. "Consider this to be the command of faith and jihad and fight them," he said in a message broadcast on Iraqi television.
Some sources said the rebellion seemed relatively small and led by members of the Iran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. If so, that could be bad news for the United States: The group envisions Iraq as an Islamic republic, not a Western-style democracy.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the United States and its allies were not encouraging uprisings but welcomed any support in Basra.
"Anyone who is involved in an uprising has a whale of a lot of courage, and I sure hope they succeed," he said.
The city has been largely without electricity and potable water since Friday. Allied officers said Saddam's paramilitary forces intentionally curtailed availability of those necessities to sow resentment against the United States and Britain.
In any event, allied commanders said they would shift their strategy there.
Initially, they expected the city to surrender easily, but that didn't happen—largely, they said, because hard-core Saddam supporters were intimidating other residents. Considerable fighting had raged on the city's outskirts, including clashes with Iraqis dressed as civilians.
Now, allied officers plan to send more troops to crush pockets of resistance so the coalition can deliver vital humanitarian aid. Officials from the International Commission of the Red Cross are in the nearby port of Umm Qasr, waiting to distribute food and medical supplies.
"There will be some elements of the city that will be military targets," said Air Force Maj. Gen. Gene Renuart, director of operations for the U.S. Central Command, which is running the war. "Our intent is not to siege the city. Our intent is to secure the city as rapidly as you can."
In Washington and London, the coalition's leaders expressed confidence in the war's progress, but again warned that it could be lengthy and—as the battle for Baghdad approaches—increasingly bloody.
At least 20 U.S. troops have been killed by hostile fire or in accidents and 14 have been captured or are missing since the operation began. Iraqi forces have sustained far deeper losses, with 3,500 reported captured. There was no accurate death toll of Iraqis, though various accounts placed the number in the hundreds or thousands.
"We're making good progress" President Bush said during a visit to the Pentagon. "We cannot know the duration of this war. Yet we know its outcome; we will prevail."
A new poll showed that the American public has become much less confident that the war is going well.
The Pew Research Center's survey, conducted March 20-24, showed that 71 percent of the public thought the war was going very well on Saturday, but only 38 percent thought so on Monday. Still, overall support for military action remained steady at about 70 percent, the survey showed.
As the president spoke, two Marine columns heading northwest to Baghdad were still advancing despite the twin plagues of wind and sand. Officers said they absorbed no casualties, as the infrared sights on their tanks gave them an advantage in near-blackout conditions.
"The Iraqis open their eyes and see a 65-ton tank coming," said Col. Dave Pere of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force near Nasiriyah. "They are just blowing right past them."
More troops joined U.S. units closest to the Iraqi capital, settling in outside Karbala, 50 miles southwest of Baghdad and near a stronghold of the Republican Guard. Coalition forces battered the Iraqis from the air and ground, hoping to soften them.
The sandstorm drastically reduced air sorties, particularly those planned by
Army and Marine attack helicopters assigned to hammer Republican Guard divisions around Baghdad. "It's a little bit ugly out there," Maj. Gen. Victor Renuart said.
But Air Force, Navy and Marine jets stepped up their attacks on SAM anti-aircraft missile batteries near Baghdad. Those targets originally were to be hit later in the war, but were accelerated because the ground advance is moving so quickly, officers said.
Combat also flared behind the front lines.
In one of the most daring raids of the war, about 100 troops from the British army's Black Watch Regiment fought their way into the southern city of Az Zubayr and snatched a leading official of Saddam's Baath party from an office.
The raiders killed 100 Iraqis during the fighting and suffered no casualties. A British officer said the operation was designed to break Baath party control over the area's military so more Iraqi soldiers might surrender or desert.
Elsewhere, the Marines reported capturing 500 young men aboard several buses at a checkpoint near Nasiriyah, a southwestern city that has offered sporadic but stiff resistance to the allied invasion.
Described as members of the pro-Saddam al Quds militia, they surrendered without a fight, according to Marine officers.
In other action, Marines captured 170 paramilitary troops near a hospital in Nasiriyah in which the Iraqis had hidden weapons, ammunition and—provocatively—3,000 chemical protection suits.
"Why would they need chemical protection suits if they weren't planning to use chemical weapons?" asked one U.S. military official who requested anonymity.
Thus far, no chemical or biological weapons have been found by allied forces.
_U.S. Patriot missiles shot down at least one and perhaps two Iraqi rockets fired from the Basra area toward Kuwait, Marine officers said. That brought the number of rockets Iraq has launched to 11 or 12, most of them reportedly intercepted.
_An American F-16 fired on and damaged the radar of a Patriot missile battery after the radar locked on the plane. No U.S. casualties were reported.
_Two days of talks in Ankara between Turkish and U.S. officials failed to result in an agreement on Turkey's plan to send troops into northern Iraq to stem a refugee crisis. U.S. officials worry that Turkish troops could destabilize the north by entering into battle with Kurdish militants. Turkey has insisted on its right to use its troops to keep out Kurdish refugees.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Diego Ibarguen, Tom Infield, Mark Johnson, Ken Moritsugu, Daniel Rubin and Peter Smolowitz contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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