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Iraqi irregulars slow American march toward Baghdad

NEAR AN NAJAF, Iraq—In one area, American troops found caches of weapons pre-positioned along U.S. supply routes. In another, they found signs that Iraqis had executed one of their own, perhaps to stiffen the spines of others. In a third, Cobra attack helicopters scrambled to defend a 70-vehicle Marine supply convoy.

Throughout central Iraq, the battle continued Friday against the shadowy irregulars who have harassed U.S. supply lines for days and slowed the American march toward Baghdad.

Near An Najaf, elements of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division found small arms and rocket-propelled grenades hidden behind sand berms and under debris, apparently so Iraqi fighters could slip in unarmed, fire on convoys, and then escape while appearing to be civilians.

South of al Kut, Marines reported on an engagement Thursday that killed 14 Iraqis. Marines picking through what had been the Iraqi perches found the remnants of humanitarian-aid food that the fighters had consumed while waiting to ambush the rear end of a convoy.

They also found an Iraqi, bound hand and foot and shot in the head, perhaps a message for would-be deserters.

In the third, two Cobra attack helicopters and two infantry companies were called in after a supply convoy was attacked with artillery and rocket propelled grenades.

"We're going to find them and kill them," 1st Marine Expeditionary Force planner Lt. Col. George Smith said of the Saddam Hussein loyalists who have been sniping at U.S. rear areas and supply columns.

In the air, about 115 U.S. and British jets blanketed central Iraq at any one time in a day-long swarm aimed at softening up Republican Guard units defending Baghdad.

But on the ground, the persistent threat of attack from guerrilla fighters still occupied American GIs. Even those who didn't experience an ambush were feeling the threat.

"This is too much," said Lance Cpl. Matt Jungling, after a two-hour ride through a sniper zone in which he and 10 other Marines were told to hunker down in the bed of a dump truck for cover. "I'd rather walk naked down the street than deal with this mess."

It was the second day of determined sweeps west of An Najaf by soldiers from the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division in search of Iraqi fighters.

They discovered caches of small arms, including two shoulder-fired SA-7 surface-to-air missiles and several dozen rocket propelled grenades, one of the Iraqis' most frequently used weapons. The weapons were destroyed.

"I think we put a dent in their operations for a while," said Capt. John Whyte, of Billerica, Mass.

Villagers told soldiers that the weapons had been left there by

Baath Party members for use against U.S. forces. They said there were no regular Iraqi army units or fedayeen militia in the area. American soldiers said some of them have been told to enter An Najaf and capture Baath Party loyalists.

Marines south of al Kut combed through the site of an ambush on one of their convoys the day before.

The Iraqis had dug themselves in along a sand berm running parallel to the highway, setting up foxholes or hiding on the banks of a drainage canal behind the berm, which offered a decent anti-tank ditch and escape route. Sitting in small camps, each clustered around a small black teapot, the Iraqis ate food from aid packages while they waited.

After the armored portion of the convoy passed, including tanks and assault vehicles, the Iraqis opened fire on the convoy's vulnerable end.

The Marines turned around, firing 25 mm machine guns and rifles. The Iraqis were no match.

Later, examining the dead guerrillas, Marine Capt. Sean Riddell of the 7th Engineering Support Battalion said he was surprised by what he found.

The Iraqis were older, many showing graying hair, receding hairlines and the thick, stodginess of middle age. These were not new recruits or young fanatics but looked more like experienced soldiers. Several wore the red bandana associated with the Republican Guard.

Their gear was similar to that of U.S. fighting forces: black rubber gas masks, green canvas carriers and camouflage outfits.

Then there was the 15th dead Iraqi, who was bound hand and foot and shot in the back of the head.

There was other fighting reported:

_A Marine reconnaissance drone spotted 10 of Iraq's best artillery pieces, South African designed G-6 howitzer that can lob shells accurately more than 30 miles, near the city of Karbala southwest of Baghdad.

The sighting allowed U.S. warplanes to knock out two of the big guns—for which Marine officers have expressed a healthy respect—and give coalition forces a hint about the whereabouts of senior Republican Guard headquarters units around Karbala.

"That's a corps-level asset," said Lt. Col. Dave Pere, the senior night watch officer at Marine headquarters outside of Nasiriyah. Iraq has two Republican Guard Corps, with three divisions each, which have control of all the G-6s, which can be used to fire chemical weapons.

_ Three al Samoud missiles, of the type that was being destroyed by U.N. weapons inspectors before the war started, spotted north of Basra, were targeted with a long-range missile, a Joint Stand Off Weapon, fired from an Air Force jet. There was no immediate report on the damage.

And in Washington, the Pentagon identified eight Marines missing since fighting started last Sunday around An Nasiriyah in Iraq. They are: Pfc. Tamario D. Burkett, 21, of Erie, N.Y.; Lance Cpl. Thomas A. Blair, 24, of Oklahoma; 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, St. Louis, Mo.; and Lance Cpl. Michael J. Williams, 31, of Arizona.

The Pentagon also announced that a Marine listed as missing since Monday has been declared dead. He was identified as Cpl. Evan T. James.


(Brown reported from the Army's 3rd Infantry Division near An Najaf. Schofield reported from the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force along Highway 7 in Central Iraq. Thomma reported from Washington. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Juan O. Tamayo at the Marine Combat Headquarters in Iraq contributed to this report.)


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