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Marines destroy weapons at Baath party headquarters

KUT ALHAYY, Iraq—U.S. Marines stripped the Baath party headquarters here of its weapons supply Tuesday and then got a rousing cheer from local people.

Civilians stood on their doorsteps waving at the passing convoy after lead elements of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines found and destroyed munitions at the party's offices.

The Marines responded warmly to the welcome, waving back and later in the day welcoming locals—after searches—into their staging area outside of town. The residents got yellow packets of food: a one-day supply similar to the troops' MREs but considered better by the Marines because the Pop-Tarts are frosted. Marines use cocoa as icing on theirs.

The events here began the night before when another Marine unit, the 1st Battalion, 11th Marines, fired artillery toward Iraqi military targets in the town and surrounding area in an effort to destroy any hardware that the Iraqis might use against them.

"We are trying to disarm them," said Maj. David Holahan, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines executive officer.

Some enemy artillery fired toward the Marines on Tuesday but did not hit any targets. The Marines counter-battery artillery can study the trajectory of incoming shells and compute the exact location of their origin so that launchers can be quickly destroyed.

Cobra helicopters also left a trail of smoldering vehicles in the town. Civilian vehicles, including a white truck and a blue van, had been seen transporting people in civilian clothing with rocket-propelled grenades aboard.

M1 Abrams tanks pointed their guns down side streets as the convoy moved through.

The Marines entered the town early Tuesday, passing palm groves, marshes and farmland. Regular Iraqi army soldiers wearing camouflaged uniforms abandoned their vehicles and were seen on the roadside. They withdrew after "light contact" with an M1 Abrams tank, Holahan said.

The Marines took 15 prisoners, all wearing civilian clothing but carrying military identification or dog tags in Arabic. Most were moving south from al Kut, which is about 20 miles north. The Baghdad division of Iraq's Republican Guard is there with an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 troops.

Intercepted Iraqi military radio reports indicated that the Iraqis moving south were trying to get in contact with their other units and calling for reinforcements. The Marines jammed those radio frequencies.

From stockpiles in the poor, mud brick town of Kut al Hayy, located on the Shatt al Gharraf Waterway, the Marines recovered 300 mortar rounds, nine artillery launchers, a surface-to-air missile launcher with three missiles and a truck full of rocket-propelled grenades.


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