SAMAWAH, Iraq—The front lines in Iraq have moved 100 miles north of here, but scattered fighting continues in cities bypassed by major U.S. forces.
As the main action shifts toward Baghdad, American troops are seeing signs that Iraqi paramilitary forces in the south may be trying to slip away to fight another day.
On Wednesday, troops from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division pushed into Samawah, a town of about 75,000 people, from three directions: north, east and west.
The pincer movements appeared to force pro-Saddam Hussein forces to flee from the north end of Samawah, which sits on a narrow tributary of the Euphrates River.
The division's Kiowa helicopters then attacked the fleeing vehicles.
Also on Wednesday, artillery units from the 82nd Airborne, based at Ft. Bragg, N.C., shelled a stadium the paramilitaries had been using as a base of operations. U.S. guns fired more than 100 rounds onto the area. Helicopters also attacked a building where U.S. commanders believed key Baath political party leaders were meeting.
Defense Department spokeswoman Torie Clarke, speaking Wednesday at the Pentagon, said low-level fighting was still taking place across much of southern Iraq.
At Najaf, 70 miles up the Euphrates River from Samawah, the 101st Airborne Division from Ft. Campbell, Ky. seized an airfield and destroyed two old Soviet-made T-55 tanks, a field artillery battery and 15 vehicles rigged with machine guns or other weapons.
The Americans captured more than 70 Iraqi soldiers, bringing the total in the war to more than 4,500.
"It would be difficult for us to judge whether this is the last resistance," said Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, a U.S. Central Command spokesman in Qatar.
"We know that this is still some resistance, and it's akin to the types of things we've seen in other urban areas as the attack has proceeded," Brooks said. "We do believe that . . . the chances for these type of actions will reduce over time."
In Najaf, a city of 420,000 people, men with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers were taking refuge in the Ali Mosque, one of the most important Shiite Muslim holy sites.
"Iraqi troops are holed up in the mosque and firing at coalition forces," Clarke said. "Against all international laws of war, the regime's forces are using and abusing the mosque as a military fortress. We have not fired back."
In Najaf, as elsewhere, clots of American troops have established security checkpoints at key intersections. TV cameras sent images throughout the world of Iraqi civilians happily greeting Americans soldiers.
Clarke said that in continuing to go block-by-block looking for remaining trouble spots, U.S. troops had "found a school in which Iraqi forces had stashed weapons and many rounds of ammunition."
Some resistance also remains in Nasariyah, where U.S. special forces on Tuesday night fought their way into a hospital to rescue Pfc. Jessica Lynch, 19, of Palestine, W. Va., who was a prisoner of war.
The commandos found ammunition, mortars, maps and terrain models in the hospital basement. They faced firefights entering and leaving the hospital, but suffered no casualties.
British troops in the southern city of Basra also continue to face scattered skirmishes.
Group Capt. Al Lockwood, a spokesman for British forces at coalition headquarters in Qatar, said Iraqis fired mortars Wednesday at a checkpoint on the city's outskirts.
British troops used radar to locate the mortar, and a Challenger 2 tank destroyed the position.
"It's that sort of little nuisance," Lockwood said. "But they're coming less by the day."
(Johnson reported from the 82nd Airborne Division in Samawah; Smolowitz from Doha, Qatar; and Infield from Washington.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.