NEAR AL KUT, Iraq—Hardened Iraqi soldiers streamed Wednesday toward the vanguard of a U.S. force gathering to assault Baghdad within days. U.S. commanders dispatched their own reinforcements—the Army's elite 101st Airborne Division.
A major battle seemed to be brewing even before U.S. forces reached Baghdad:
Large numbers of Iraqi troops—including thousands of Saddam Hussein's respected Republican Guard—appeared to be positioning themselves to block a U.S. advance on Baghdad, the center of Saddam's power.
U.S. forces bombed some of those enemy concentrations from the air, but more Iraqi troops kept coming, U.S. officials said.
Meanwhile in northern Iraq, nearly 1,000 U.S. Army paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade jumped into the war under cover of darkness, seizing an airfield near Bashur as an initial step toward stabilizing the region.
The operation was assisted by U.S. Special Forces teams, already on the ground, working in association with local Kurds.
In Baghdad, Iraqi officials said at least 15 people were killed and 30 injured when U.S. missiles struck a residential neighborhood. U.S. officials denied targeting the area, but could not say if the carnage was inflicted by stray U.S. missiles or Iraqi weapons.
"We do regret the loss of any life, any innocent life in any conflict," said Army Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
At the Pentagon, officials released their first official U.S. casualty count of the war: They said 24 Americans were killed, 19 in action and five in accidents, as of 10 a.m. EST Wednesday. Twenty-eight others have been injured.
In the south, the British siege of Basra intensified, as 25,000 troops from Britain's 1st Armored Division cordoned off main roads to prevent Iraqi paramilitary troops from leaving and regular Iraqi soldiers from entering.
The British also fired artillery to silence Iraqi mortars that officers said targeted anti-Saddam demonstrators.
"Iraqi civilians are being killed on the battlefield by Iraqis," said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks. "The regime has shown its true colors the last few days of fighting."
The condition of Basra's 1.3 million people was unknown, though relief workers said water service had been restored to about half the population and food, medicine and other necessities could reach them by Friday if the area is stabilized.
"Day by day, Saddam Hussein is losing his grip on Iraq; day by day, the Iraqi people are closer to freedom," President Bush told uniformed personnel at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., the home of the U.S. Central Command, which is running the war.
At the same time, though, he cautioned, "We cannot know the duration of this war, but we are prepared for the battle ahead." And, his voice cracking with emotion, he said: "I'm honored to be the commander in chief."
Bush was to meet with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, his main partner in the war, Wednesday night and Thursday, at the presidential retreat at Camp David.
Despite the president's generally upbeat assessment, reports from the field suggested that allied troops were continuing to have great difficulty suppressing resistance behind the front lines and organizing the rest of the drive on Baghdad.
To help guard the 300-mile supply line, the Central Command's ground commander, Army Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, requested and received a squadron of armored Humvees and an air troop with reconnaissance helicopters from the Army's 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment at Fort Polk, La. They are scheduled to leave Louisiana on Sunday, defense officials said.
As the president spoke Wednesday, the main action of the coming days appeared to be building in the central region of Iraq, as U.S. Army forces massed southwest of Baghdad and U.S. Marines massed southeast of the city.
Facing the Army near the city of Karbala: the Republican Guard's Medina division. Facing the Marines near the city of al Kut: the Republican Guard's Baghdad division. Each has about 8,000 of Iraq's best troops and is equipped with artillery and formidable Soviet-made T-72 tanks.
U.S. Marines reported that a column of up to 1,000 Iraqi vehicles headed toward the Army units was pummeled by strikes from a B-52 warplane, four tank-busting A-10s and two British Tornado jets.
"They are counting the burning hulks," said Col. Dave Pere of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in southern Iraq.
Allied aircraft also stepped up attacks on Baghdad's network of SAM anti-aircraft missiles, in preparation for a possible battle for Baghdad.
But large concentrations of Iraqi fighters and elite Republican Guard troops kept heading toward the Army on one flank and the Marines on the other, U.S. officers said.
Military officials who said Tuesday they would delay an attack on the capital until resistance was suppressed farther south said Wednesday the assault was again on the fast track.
It is likely to begin in a few days, as soon as the Marines—now 36 hours behind schedule—are fully in position, according to several senior U.S. officials.
American officials believe isolating and then seizing the Iraqi capital will hasten the end of Saddam's regime, halt paramilitary attacks on U.S. and British forces in southern Iraq and perhaps trigger the hoped-for anti-Saddam rebellions that so far have not materialized, said the senior officials, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity.
One official also said that waiting for reinforcements from the Army's 4th Infantry Division, which will not be in position for at least two weeks, could strengthen the Iraqi regime and leave U.S. and British forces exposed to weeks of guerrilla attacks.
"If we don't take the offensive within two or three days, it's going to be a long war, and probably not a happy one," said one senior official.
And so, elements of the 101st Airborne—which has remained in reserve in Kuwait—were dispatched to the battlefield.
The division's 2nd Brigade sent truckloads of infantry soldiers and supplies into Iraq, and the rest of the 17,000-man division was expected to follow Thursday.
"Unless there's a mass surrender in the next 48 hours, these guys are definitely going to be a part of the Baghdad plan, whatever it is," said Capt. Kenneth Hutchison of the 101st Airborne. "There's no wishing it away."
Driving through blasts of sand and wind, the convoy rolled out with troops wearing bio-chemical suits and holding guns across their laps. Scarves and goggles covered the men's faces.
They were believed bound for the western flank of a two-pronged drive on Baghdad, a route that would take them through still-hostile territory to the cities of An Najaf and Karbala.
It was in that area that Wednesday's air strikes were conducted on the advancing column of Iraqi vehicles. The Army's 3rd Mechanized Infantry Division is in that area and had been expecting reinforcements from the 101st Airborne.
"We're going to soften them up, and when we're ready, we're going into Baghdad," said one U.S. officer, who requested anonymity.
But even after those protective air strikes, U.S. officers reported more Iraqi military movements toward the south, including groups of Republican Guards, the only troops based in Baghdad.
American strategists had expected those forces to remain in the capital, forcing U.S. troops into protracted urban warfare. Now, they were believed to be bracing to blunt any advance on the city and strike the U.S. force's thinly stretched supply lines.
"We're seeing a fair amount of movement," said Marine Lt. Col. George Smith. "There is shifting taking place."
At the same time, though, officials said the growing concentrations of Republican Guard forces rendered them vulnerable to additional allied air strikes.
Saddam's move came amid reports that some units of the 3rd Infantry had run out of fuel and ammunition during its dash to Baghdad. It also came amid continuing hit-and-run attacks on rear areas, especially two key bridges around An Nasiriyah in the south.
Marines near An Nasiriyah reported attacking a column of military vehicles, some armed with rocket launchers, driven by men in civilian clothes who did not appear to know how to operate the weapons.
"It would suggest that what he (Saddam) tried to do was overstretch us," said British Army Maj. Steve McQueenie.
The Marines, however, expressed confidence that Saddam's latest move would backfire and play into their hands.
"We obviously don't want to get into an urban fight," Smith said. "So if he wants to pull them (his troops) out into open terrain, we're confident we can deal with that."
Harlan K. Ullman, an author of the military doctrine called "shock and awe," said that if long columns of Iraqi troops and tanks have truly exposed themselves to U.S. firepower, "then these people are dead men walking."
Sandstorm or no sandstorm, he said, coalition forces have the ability to destroy such forces. Much of Iraq is under constant surveillance by U.S. aircraft laden with equipment capable of penetrating bad weather.
(Knight Ridder correspondents Drew Brown, Ken Dilanian, Diego Ibarguen, Tom Infield and Peter Smolowitz contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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