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Coalition forces ready to battle Republican Guard

DOHA, Qatar—The skies over Iraq cleared of sandstorms Thursday, freeing American and British forces to renew punishing offensives in several sectors as Baghdad shook from bomb blasts.

But back in Washington, in a sign that an early end to the war is unlikely, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld issued orders Thursday for 120,000 more troops to begin moving to the war zone. When they arrive, more than half of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps will be in Iraq.

These include the first soldiers from the heavily armored Army 4th Infantry Division based at Fort Hood, Texas. Also headed to the Persian Gulf are elements of the 1st Armored Division and the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment. These reinforcements won't be ready to fight for at least three weeks.

Signs of progress for U.S.-led forces popped up across Iraq Thursday.

In the northern zone, thousands of Iraqi soldiers suddenly retreated from long-held positions. In the south, British troops destroyed 14 Iraqi tanks fleeing the besieged city of Basra.

In addition, American planes carrying critically needed supplies began landing at one airstrip in northern Iraq and also at another in the south, now renamed "Bush International Airport."

But not everything went the allies' way.

The U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division, the unit closest to Baghdad, was still tied down fighting to clear local villages of militia that continued to harass supply lines. Allied officials told of death squads prolonging the war by threatening families of anyone who dares to surrender.

The 3rd Infantry and the 60,000-man 1st Marine Expeditionary Force are poised to attack two and perhaps more Iraqi Republican Guard divisions in the next few days, after Air Force planes and Army helicopter gunships have pounded the Iraqis' positions a bit more, according to senior U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

At the same time, the officials said, the 101st Airborne Division will move to block other Republican Guard divisions north of Baghdad from reinforcing the two divisions that are blocking the American advance from the south.

If, as Pentagon civilian planners believe, the combination of U.S. airpower, precision weaponry and mobility succeeds in destroying the Republican Guard, that will eliminate the greatest conventional threat to U.S. forces.

But American troops could still face bitter battles inside the Iraqi capital if Saddam Hussein's regime refuses to crumble.

If the Iraqis manage to resist the U.S. advance, perhaps by using chemical weapons or counterattacking against the long American supply lines—or if significant numbers of Republican Guard troops manage to retreat into Baghdad—it could take months to win the war, the officials said.

For allied soldiers and pilots, the best news of the day was the weather: Sandstorms that had blocked out the sun, encrusted everything with grit and reduced visibility to mere feet finally ended.

Warplanes filled the now-clear skies and explosions shook central Baghdad late Thursday night, sending plumes of smoke rising near the Information Ministry. Warplanes dropped bombs on bunkers, command and control facilities and weapons facilities.

"You see it's a good night," said Col. John Coleman, chief of staff for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. He pointed at a computer screen at the combat operations center in southern Iraq. The screen showed central and southern Iraq virtually blanketed by blue icons marking the positions of Allied aircraft.

With the number of prisoners of war and cooperating Iraqi civilians growing steadily, American forces are getting increasingly better intelligence on Saddam loyalists, said a senior intelligence official for the Marines.

One such tip led to a strike Thursday with artillery, A-10 "tank buster" jets and Air Force jets against a racetrack in the city of Diwaniyah, about 75 miles south of Baghdad, where some 500 pro-Saddam fighters were expected to gather.

An Army Hunter observation drone sent back pictures of ammunition trucks parked at the racetrack—and of buildings exploding and trucks burning as the barrage struck, Coleman said.

"We're kind of getting into the battle rhythm," said F-14 pilot Lt. Cmdr. Randy Stearns, 33, of Mansfield, Mass. "With the bad weather the last couple of days, we really couldn't be too effective getting up there. But now, they've got plenty of targets for us, and it's nice to get up there and help those guys out that have been sitting there a few days waiting for us."

In southern Iraq, British forces destroyed 14 Iraqi Soviet-made T-55 tanks trying to escape Basra, the nation's second-largest city.

"This is the third time they have tried to pull their tanks out of Basra, and every time they've gotten a good crunching," said Squadron Leader Simon Scott, a British spokesman at allied headquarters in Qatar. "If they stick their head out of the hole, we chop it off."

Back up north, thousands of Iraqi soldiers defending the oil-rich city of Kirkuk suddenly withdrew from frontlines Thursday, strewing mines along a highway in their wake. Their retreat from positions that they had held for 12 years came after a week of U.S. air strikes and only hours after 1,000 U.S. paratroopers had secured an airfield in Harir, in the Kurd-controlled region.

The paratroopers could be the advance guard of a major U.S. force whose job will be to capture Kirkuk, Mosul and nearby oilfields. They also could open a second front to help attack Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit and Baghdad.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday that Saddam's elite Republican Guard divisions have formed a large defensive ring around both Baghdad and Tikrit.

"Very likely, that will be some of the toughest fighting that will occur," Rumsfeld told reporters on Capitol Hill. "And that's yet ahead of us."

Facing reporters in Baghdad, Iraqi Defense Minister Sultan Hashem Ahmed predicted even worse for any allied forces that enter his city. "The enemy must come inside Baghdad," he said, "and that will be its grave."

Republican Guard troops remained dug in defensively, despite earlier reports that Iraqi forces were moving en masse toward American positions. The reports of 1,000 Iraqi vehicles moving under cover of a sandstorm were erroneous, rising from the ``fog of war,'' according to U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks.

"The reality is there were not large numbers of vehicles," he said at Central Command headquarters. "We heard reports between hundreds and thousands. That was not the case at all. In fact, it was an erroneous signal We determined it was a different-sized force, and we destroyed it."

In southern Iraq, the first C-130 transport plane carrying supplies landed at what had been called "Tallil Airfield" Thursday near the town of An Nasiriyah. With runways cleared of debris left by Iraqis, Americans posted a small makeshift sign renaming the strip "Bush International Airport." It is Iraq's second largest.

Back at home, President Bush wrapped up a war summit with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland and brushed aside questions of whether the war would take weeks or months.

"However long it takes. That's the answer to your question and that's what you've got to know," Bush said. "It isn't a matter of timetable, it's a matter of victory."

Blair denounced Iraq's release of a photograph showing two apparently executed British prisoners as "one more flagrant breach of all the proper conventions of war an act of cruelty beyond comprehension."

At the same time, U.S. and British officials said Thursday that Iraqi death squads under the command of Saddam's eldest son, Odai Hussein, are prolonging the war by intimidating Iraqis who might otherwise surrender.

"They go into the cities and shoot people and threaten people and insist that they not surrender and not rise up," Rumsfeld told reporters on Capitol Hill. "They're vicious. They left somebody in the center of Baghdad not too long ago with his tongue pulled out until he bled to death."

British commanders said paramilitary troops loyal to Saddam threatened to execute soldiers of the Iraqi army's 51st Division in Basra—or their families—if they failed to keep fighting.

"They go to their houses and hold guns to their head," Air Marshal Brian Burridge, commander of the British forces, told reporters at Central Command headquarters. "It takes a huge effort to win the hearts and minds of people who have been subjected to that level of fear."

Yet that may overstate the practice. Close to Basra, a British duty officer said he was unaware of reports of death squads in the city.

"I've been attending regular briefings all day and conference calls with general officers, and I can assure you that has not come up," said British Army Major James Kelly. "And we're pretty close to the front here. That has not been raised at all."

In other developments:

_Eight members of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force were listed as missing Thursday after fighting around An Nasiriyah on Sunday, a Pentagon spokesman said. Nine Marines died in that battle, the official said. The missing are Pfc. Tamario D. Burkett, 21, of Erie, N.Y.; Lance Cpl. Thomas A. Blair, 24, of Oklahoma (city not available); Cpl. Kemaphoom A. Chanawongse, 22, of Waterford, Conn.; Lance Cpl. Donald J. Cline, Jr., 21, of Washoe, Nev.; Pvt. Jonathan L. Gifford, 20, of Macon, Ill.; Pvt. Nolen R. Hutchings, 19, of Boiling Springs, S.C.; Lance Cpl. Patrick R. Nixon, 21, of St. Louis and Lance Cpl. Michael J. Williams, 31, of Arizona (city not available).

_Eight members of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force were identified and listed as missing after fighting around An Nasiriyah on Sunday, a Pentagon spokesman said. Nine Marines died in that battle, the official said.

_The first humanitarian aid began arriving in parts of southern Iraq. U.S. officials released video of U.S. civil affairs soldiers, working with 40 Iraqis, shaking hands with smiling children;

_ Coalition troops found two mines in the water leading to the port city of Umm Qasr, and it will take two or three days to secure the shipping lane, said Maj. Will MacKinley, a spokesman for British forces. To help, 2,000 U.S. Marines were dispatched from Task Force Horn of Africa in Djibouti;

_Blair urged the United Nations to restart its food-for-oil program to speed more humanitarian aid to Iraq. He said he hopes the United Nations will play a key role in rebuilding Iraq after the war, though he conceded that the details remain to be worked out. The United States has made clear that it intends to run the post-war effort.

_French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said France wants to mend its relationship with the United States. "These times of great changes call for a renewed, close and trusting relationship with the United States," he said. His remarks came one day after the Air Force One crew renamed French toast "Freedom toast;"

_U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Negroponte walked out of a Thursday session when Iraq's envoy accused the United States of trying to exterminate the Iraqi people. "I'd heard enough," Negroponte said.

_Iraqis launched a 12th missile at Kuwait. Patriot missiles destroyed it, bringing the number they've shot down to eight. The other Iraqi missiles landed in the desert, the water or failed at launch.

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(Smolowitz of The Charlotte Observer reported from Qatar. Thomma anchored from Washington. Also contributing: Sandy Bauers of The Philadelphia Inquirer aboard the USS Harry S. Truman; Drew Brown with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division near An Najaf, Iraq; Juan Tamayo of The Miami Herald in southern Iraq; Sumana Chatterjee in Washington; Jonathan Landay in Chamchamal, Iraq; Mark McDonald with the 173rd Airborne in northern Iraq; and Fawn Vrazo of The Philadelphia Inquirer in London.)

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

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