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Combat intensifies; Allied forces near Baghdad

NEAR AL KUT, Iraq—Both sides girded Monday for the coming battle of Baghdad as U.S. armored columns advanced from two directions. They came within 50 miles of the capital before sandstorms—and a formidable Iraqi army—forced a delay.

Saddam Hussein and other Iraqi leaders vowed resistance, and U.S. and British leaders warned that the contest for Baghdad could be bloody. Two divisions of Saddam's elite and loyal Republican Guard troops—about 20,000 fighters—were believed to stand between allied forces and the center of Saddam's regime.

Saddam has given his hardened Republican Guard the authority to use chemical weapons, U.S. officials said.

Strikes by Air Force, Navy and Marine jets targeted the Guard on the southwest outskirts of Baghdad on Monday and early Tuesday, preparing the battlefield. Some bombers shifted from precision-guided bombs, used mostly against buildings and other high-value targets, to MK-83 air-burst bombs deployed mostly against infantry.

"We're about to put the 1st Marine Division in scoring position ... and swing for the fences," said Col. David Pere, of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

Meanwhile, 30 AH-64 Apache attack helicopters engaged in a frenzied battle with Republican Guard units outside Karbala, about 50 miles southwest of Baghdad. One U.S. helicopter was downed and others were riddled with bullets, officials said.

Two Americans aboard the lost helicopter were listed as prisoners of war. The Pentagon identified them as Chief Warrant Officer Ronald D. Young, 26, of Lithia Springs, Ga., and Chief Warrant Officer David S. Williams, 30, of an unknown city in Florida. Both were from the First Cavalry Division at Fort Hood.

At least one other U.S. soldier died in action Monday, and separately the bodies of two U.S. soldiers were recovered. They had been among 12 officially reported missing Sunday; the others apparently were either killed or taken prisoner by Iraqi forces.

Also, the first British death from enemy fire was reported Monday, and an unknown number of U.S. soldiers suffered wounds.

"It's the wild, wild west out there," Marine Capt. Joseph Bevan said near Nasiriyah, as combat raged in nearly every region of Iraq.

On one road in central Iraq, U.S. forces in M1A2 Abrams tanks, M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles and countless support vehicles reached Karbala; along another, they reached al Kut, about 100 miles southeast of the capital.

In the north, U.S. warplanes pounded Iraqi positions around the oil-rich cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. Local officials said that many Iraqi soldiers were killed or wounded. For the first time, U.S. planes based on carriers in the Mediterranean Sea flew over Turkey, taking advantage of shorter routes to northern Iraq now that the Turkish government has opened its airspace.

In the south, allied ground troops attempted to consolidate their positions, but ferocious skirmishes still erupted.

Sometimes civilians were caught in the crossfire.

At the Pentagon, Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal apologized for an incident in which a U.S. bomb hit a passenger bus carrying Syrian civilians. Syrian officials said five were killed and 10 wounded when the bus was bombed on an Iraqi bridge about 100 miles from Syria's border.

Saddam spoke on Iraqi television, wearing a battle uniform, appearing vigorous and attempting to rally his people. "Those who are believers will be victorious," he said. "Iraq will strike the necks" of its enemies.

U.S. and British officials said the message might have been taped before the war began and that Saddam's actual condition remained unknown following last week's missile strike that targeted him and other leaders of his regime.

Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, whose condition also had been questioned, appeared at a news conference on Iraqi television and said he, Saddam and the rest of the Iraqi leadership were in good shape and "in full control of the army and the country."

In Baghdad, Iraqi forces dug defensive trenches in the heart of the city and set more oil-filled trenches afire around the capital in an attempt to conceal key targets from U.S. and British air attacks.

Marine officers said there were early reports that Saddam was redeploying some troops from greater Baghdad to defensive positions farther from the capital.

"That's exactly what we want him to do," said Pere. U.S. forces would rather take on Saddam's best troops in open terrain than in an urban setting such as Baghdad, a sprawling city of more than 5 million people.

At the same time, U.S. and British leaders attempted to prepare their troops and other citizens for difficult days ahead.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned that coalition forces soon will encounter the Medina Division of the Republican Guard, which is positioned between Karbala and Baghdad.

"This will be a crucial moment," Blair said. "These are the closest to Saddam that are resisting and will resist strongly."

In Washington, the Bush administration finally estimated the financial cost of the war. President Bush asked congressional leaders to approve about $75 billion in emergency spending for military action in Iraq and the war on terrorism.

Bush and Blair were expected to meet in the United States on Wednesday or Thursday.

Though Iraqi military resistance seemed stubborn and widespread, U.S. and British officials framed the hostilities as isolated and expected confrontations by small forces.

"You can expect that our clean-up operations are going to be on-going across the days," said U.S. Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the allied commander, at his Qatar headquarters. "As our troops fight, even in these isolated areas, there will be casualties."

He said allied forces have captured about 3,000 Iraqi prisoners of war and that American officials are holding surrender talks with leaders of several units.

British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said the war was unfolding "according to the plan" but "this is a difficult, demanding, complex, sophisticated military operation, and it is not, as I warned the other day, going to be over in a matter of days."

Resistance flared here and there along the front lines, and it seemed to stiffen well behind the spearhead of the invasion.

"Looks like we're going to run the gantlet," said Maj. Marty Korenek, a company commander in the U.S. Marines 4th Assault Amphibious Battalion.

His unit took a position a few miles west of Nasiriyah, preparing to cross the Euphrates River over a bridge that has been a flash point for battles with the Fedayeen, an Iraqi paramilitary force of 60,000 fighters.

The area was repeatedly struck Monday with suppressing fire from allied attack helicopters, artillery fire and infantry forces. Medivac helicopters were seen flying into and out of the area.

By early Tuesday morning, most of the battalion had passed over the bridge and was encountering only small arms fire.

The unit's intermediate objective was al Kut, where other U.S. units already had formed a staging area for the assault on Baghdad.

Along a distant but parallel front, the Army's 3rd Infantry Division reached the outskirts of Karbala.

The sandstorms blocked further movement Monday, a delay that also allowed food, fuel and ammunition to catch up to the leading elements. Much of that crucial materiel remained locked in traffic along the main road west of the Euphrates.

U.S. military officials acknowledged that, as ground forces continue their march to Baghdad, they are leaving behind pockets of resistance that will take time and could cost lives to eliminate.

Some coalition troops remain in or near Basra, Nasiriyah and other southern cities to remove members of the Fedayeen. Those "irregular fighters" have dressed as civilians and then clashed with allied forces, Central Command officials said.

"We expect to continually encounter these irregular forces who will come out sporadically, and we will deal with them," said Navy Capt. Frank Thorp, a military spokesman.

The promised beneficial flood of humanitarian aid for desperate Iraqi citizens has not yet materialized, largely because southern Iraq has not been pacified. In coming days, Franks said, residents of Basra and other cities should have more access to food, water and medicine than they have in decades.

In other developments Monday:

_Bush called Russian President Vladimir Putin to complain that Russian firms were selling war gear to Iraq. U.S. intelligence officials said that Russian companies have supplied night-vision goggles, anti-tank missiles and equipment that can interfere with systems that guide precision bombs and missiles.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Putin promised to look into the situation, which threatened to derail the growing friendship between Bush and Putin.

_Franks said that "several" allied deaths had been the caused by friendly fire. Neither he nor other military spokesmen would elaborate. Previously, only one friendly fire incident had been known—Sunday's apparent downing of a British Royal Air Force plane by an American Patriot missile, killing two British airmen.

_Franks said coalition forces won't be able to prove Saddam has weapons of mass destruction until they have a chance to talk to Iraqis who have had access to the weapons.

It's also too soon to rule out Iraqi use of such weapons, he said. "As the compression becomes tighter and tighter and tighter, the pressure will be greater and greater to use these weapons," Franks said.


(Knight Ridder Newspaper correspondents Sandy Bauers, Jessica Guynn, Ron Hutcheson, Jonathan S. Landay, Mark MacDonald, Matt Schofield, Peter Smolowitz, Warren P. Strobel and Fawn Vrazo contributed to this report.)


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

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20030324 Iraq Day6 summary; 20030324 Iraq Day6 rdup; 20030324 Iraq Day6 update

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ