NEAR AN NASIRIYAH, Iraq—U.S. troops determined to snub out resistance and protect vulnerable supply lines swarmed around this key Euphrates River crossing Saturday, newly wary of the local populace after Iraqis seized a Marine amid heavy fighting to the north.
Reports of looting in An Nasiriyah and of the hurried departure of officials of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, while unconfirmed, gave some hope that Saddam's regime was losing control of the city's 500,000 people.
Armed Iraqi militias captured the Marine and destroyed three vehicles Friday night in an ambush of a 200-truck Marine convoy bearing desperately needed supplies to the front lines. A "massive fight" broke out when the convoy approached the town of Ash Shatra along Iraq's highway 7, and Marines summoned Cobra attack helicopters for help, Marine Maj. David Holahan said.
The helicopters blasted militia positions for half an hour, allowing the convoy to barrel northward, said Holahan, executive officer of 1st Battalion, 4th Marines. Numerous casualties littered the town, witnesses said.
But as darkness fell Friday, militias attacked the convoy from the rear, overturning one vehicle, heavily damaging two others and taking the Marine, who was not identified.
Unconfirmed reports claimed that Iraqis dragged the Marine through the streets of Ash Shatra, a town of 2,000 residents between An Nasiriyah and al-Kut.
The convoy carried supplies to elements of the 1st Marine Division, settled in a field south of al-Kut at the front lines of U.S.-led forces.
Guerrilla attacks have hampered the movement of supplies from the south, limiting Marines to one 1,200-calorie ready-to-eat meal a day Friday and Saturday, half the usual intake, until food stocks are replenished.
To clear the troublesome choke point at An Nasiriyah, the Army's 82nd Airborne Division and 5,000 Marines rolled into the outskirts of the Euphrates River city Saturday.
"We're going to remove this boot of terrorism from their neck," vowed Lt. Col. George Smith, with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force's forward combat headquarters in southern Iraq.
Elements of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division reported knocking out 16 tanks and armored vehicles, one SA-3 surface-to-air missile site and 55 trucks over the past 24 hours. It captured 413 prisoners.
"Once we clean up these pockets of resistance over the next couple of days," said Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack, the 82nd Airborne Division's commander, "I believe the push toward Baghdad will continue."
Meanwhile, along the coalition's front line, there was a frenzied effort to build a huge temporary base for Marines. There was also a lull that permitted shaving and washing after days of combat.
At a secret location south of Baghdad, bulldozers worked around the clock to lay the groundwork for the Marines' attack on the Iraqi capital, creating a square sand berm 5 miles around and 15 feet high.
When finished Monday at the latest, the berm will protect Camp AA Anderson, the largest and likely most important Marine—and possibly coalition military—base in Iraq. Marines will launch their assault from Camp AA Anderson and use the camp to rest, refuel and reload.
The camp now is filling with spools of razor wire to protect the perimeter and construct prison camps. Dozens of tankers filled with fuel for tanks and assault vehicles rolled in, along with huge stores of artillery shells and other ammunition and trucks piled with food and thousands of cases of bottled water.
"For an assault, the Marines need fuel and they need ammo, and it looks like this is where they're going to get it from," said Capt. Sean Riddell, the executive officer of Delta Company of the 7th Engineering Support Battalion.
A tense scene unfolded in An Nasiriyah, where Marines made "several adjustments" to their strategy, said Lt. Col. John Miranda, the combat headquarters' liaison with the 5,000 Marines deployed on the outskirts of the city.
A lull in the fighting began Friday, but before that, Miranda said, "fighting has been nonstop, inside the city, outside and around it" against militias loyal to Saddam.
Miranda described them as men in civilian clothes who use civilians as shields, forcibly recruit children as lookouts and store weapons in mosques and hospitals.
"They shoot at us, and right after shooting at us they jump into cars with women and children, I don't know daring us, but challenging us," he said.
Marines found two huge weapons caches in their probes of An Nasiriyah, plus decontamination equipment for weapons of mass destruction and artillery shells they couldn't immediately identify.
The 2,500-member 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit arrived on the outskirts of An Nasiriyah and the 15th MEU was ordered to move there Saturday to help 5,000 Marines who already were in the area to protect Marine convoys crossing two bridges into central Iraq.
(Knight Ridder correspondents Mark Johnson, Meg Laughlin, Matthew Schofield and Patrick Peterson contributed to this report. It was compiled by Tim Johnson.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.