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U.S. troops try to isolate Samawa to protect supply lines

SAMAWA, Iraq—Soldiers from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division captured more than 50 Iraqi soldiers and civilians on Monday, including one man dressed in old U.S. Army desert camouflage, as they pressed their siege of a small Euphrates River city where Iraqi paramilitary forces have been attacking U.S. forces' main supply line.

As Iraqi fighters shot at American infantrymen and lobbed mortar fire at U.S. troops and armored vehicles in midafternoon, the division's artillery responded with 105 mm rounds.

"Counterfire! Counterfire!" an artilleryman barked over the radio as the division's howitzers lobbed shells across the city at the Iraqi mortars.

"They'll come out, shoot a few rounds and go back inside" their building, said Spec. Jason Stoffel, 22, of Fresno, Calif. Stoffel, of the 141st Mechanized Infantry Battalion, said his Bradley armored vehicle came under small arms attack several times, but the Iraqis kept their distance.

U.S. troops are trying to isolate the town, about 120 miles south of Baghdad, in order to crush the pro-Saddam Hussein forces that have been attacking the supply lines to U.S. troops advancing on the Iraqi capital. U.S. officers suspect that as many as 800 fedayeen or allied fighters may be operating out of Samawa.

Securing Highway 8, which runs through Samawa, would shave three or four hours off the current, circuitous route for food, fuel, spare parts, water and ammunition going to frontline units farther north.

In three days of fighting, the 82nd's forces have killed or wounded at least 40 Iraqis, destroyed vehicles used to attack coalition forces—including a bus—and captured several caches of weapons and ammunition.

"We've effectively cut off a good portion of what (the enemy) thinks he owns in the area," said Maj. Pete Wilhelm, a spokesman for the 82nd, which is based at Ft. Bragg, N.C.

Nine soldiers from the 82nd Airborne have been wounded since the weekend. All are in stable condition.

Coalition officials contend that the Saddam Fedayeen, a paramilitary offshoot of Iraq's Baath political party, have led the attacks on the U.S. supply line and have captured and executed American soldiers.


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