NEAR AN NAJAF, Iraq—Opening an ominous new dimension of the war, a suicide bomber in a taxi killed four American soldiers Saturday as front-line U.S. forces probed Iraqi positions and bombarded enemy troops as a prelude to the assault on Baghdad.
"We're very concerned about it," Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said of the suicide car bombing on the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, an attack reminiscent of those on U.S. forces in Beirut during the 1980s and on Israelis more recently. "It looks and feels like terrorism."
U.S. troops were warned Saturday night to raise their already elevated level of vigilance. In some areas, Iraqi civilians were warned not to approach U.S. troops.
The war continued, with elements of the Army's 101st Airborne Division mounting fierce helicopter attacks on an Iraqi Republican Guard division near An Najaf and Karbala, southwest of Baghdad.
On the eastern front, near the city of al Kut, U.S. Marines, preparing to fight another Republican Guard division, received five-day supplies of ammunition and seized a field within helicopter range of the capital.
Behind those two Republican Guard divisions stands Baghdad, the seat of Saddam Hussein's power.
"We're ready to rock and roll," said Marine Lt. Col. John Miranda.
In another sign that heavy ground combat is on the horizon, allied forces launched 300 warplanes Saturday—nearly twice the number that attacked Iraqi sites Friday. New and intense bombardments early Sunday rocked the outskirts of Baghdad, apparently targeting concentrations of Iraqi troops.
Those and other developments suggested that a major U.S. attack on the both Republican Guard divisions could come soon, though supplies were still en route to the front and hard-pressed U.S. troops still needed rest.
At least 290,000 coalition troops are in the region, the Pentagon said, nearly 100,000 in Iraq. So far, more than 50 Americans have been killed or are reported missing.
A new concern exploded into the public consciousness Saturday when the suicide bomber killed the four soldiers, whose names were not immediately released.
The assailant struck a U.S. military checkpoint near An Najaf along Highway 28, a main north-south road.
Officers said the driver waved for help. When soldiers approached, he detonated the explosives.
Close to the front lines and about 80 miles southwest of Baghdad, the city of An Najaf has been the scene of fierce fighting, as U.S. forces continue to battle Baath party militia loyal to Saddam and struggle to secure long allied supply lines.
The incident prompted U.S. commanders to post signs in Arabic at roadblocks warning Iraqi civilians not to approach U.S. soldiers.
Lt. Col. Jack Kammerer, the commander of an infantry task force that controls a sector near the attack site, cautioned his troops Saturday night to be extremely careful.
"If you haven't figured it out, most of these people around here are good and decent people," said Kammerer, 40, of Grand Island, N.Y. "But there are also plenty of people here who want to kill us."
At coalition headquarters in Qatar, Air Force Maj. Gen. Gene Renuart said the attack demonstrated that Saddam's forces were "beginning to get desperate."
"These kinds of events are associated with terrorists," Renuart said. "We're concerned about any kind of unconventional attack on our forces."
In Baghdad, Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan said the attacker was a noncommissioned officer in the Iraqi army and he boasted that such attacks were now "routine military policy."
"We will use any means to kill our enemy in our land and we will follow the enemy into its land," he said. "This is just the beginning."
The Bush administration has been on alert for Iraqi terrorists and on Friday reported that it had foiled plots against U.S. interests in Jordan and Yemen. Authorities are searching for Iraqi-backed terrorists in the United States, Great Britain, India and seven other countries.
In another troubling incident, the remains of what may be several U.S. soldiers were found in shallow graves near the embattled city of An Nasiriyah.
The circumstances of their deaths were unclear, though two Americans were killed, five were captured and eight were listed as missing after a battle there last Sunday. A military mortuary team was investigating.
The guerrilla tactics employed by Iraqi militia across southern and central Iraq have surprised U.S. soldiers, who had been led to expect a quick, conventional battle against regular Iraqi army forces, over whom they hold technological superiority.
"I never thought it was going to be a free ticket up through here," said Sgt. Maj. Louis Torres, 42, of the 3rd Infantry Division. "But I am surprised at their tactics. I think they've done their homework. . . . They know where our vulnerabilities are."
Iraqi militia around An Najaf have carried out ambushes and other small-scale raids against U.S. forces in recent days, usually striking in groups of six or less before melting back into the local population. Local villagers have told U.S. soldiers that they do not support the Iraqi regime, but are powerless against militiamen who have tyrannized them for decades.
Nevertheless, U.S. forces were moving into position for the invasion of Baghdad and are doing what they can to weaken Iraqi defenses.
In one of the busiest days of the air war, allied bomb and missile attacks raged day and night on Baghdad, the nearby Republican Guard divisions and many other locations around the country.
Among the targets, according to U.S. officials: a building in Basra where 200 paramilitary leaders were said to be meeting and nine locations throughout Iraq that supposedly served at offices of Saddam's Baath Party.
At least 6,000 precision bombs and more than 675 Tomahawk cruise missiles have been dropped on Iraq during the war, McChrystal said.
He and other officials said they still were investigating the cause of several blasts in civilian neighborhoods of Baghdad. Iraqi officials said scores of civilians were killed and wounded in explosions they blamed on U.S. missiles and bombs. Allied officials said errant Iraqi anti-aircraft missiles might have been responsible.
Meanwhile, U.S. officers temporarily suspended the launching of Tomahawk cruise missiles from the eastern Mediterranean and Red Sea because some have gone astray and fallen in Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
McChrystal said the suspension would not substantially change the war because missiles can be launched from elsewhere and other weapons can replace them.
About seven Tomahawk missiles—less than 1 percent of those launched—have gone off-course because of mechanical problems, McChrystal said. Due to the missiles' programming, he said, those that go astray don't explode.
On another matter that has inspired much speculation, several coalition officers denied that thin U.S. supply lines and Iraqi guerrilla attacks have forced them to delay the key battle for Baghdad.
"Because you see a particular formation not moving on a day does not mean there's a pause on the battlefield," said Renuart, the Air Force officer.
Said Lt. Col. Ronnie McCourt, a spokesman for the British forces: "At some stage, you've got to give people a good night's sleep and recharge their batteries."
Action certainly continued in many places Saturday.
U.S. officers said the 101st Airborne suffered no losses in the helicopter engagements with the Republican Guard. They said their troops destroyed enemy tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery pieces and mobile missile launchers.
"Every time we encounter them, we basically rout them," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charles Owens, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command. "We're meeting resistance, and it's stiff, but eventually we win decisively."
In southern Iraq, small numbers of civilians continued to flee government-held Basra, sometimes under fire by Iraqi paramilitary troops.
British forces said they secured the city's oil refinery and launched a series of overnight raids, destroying five antique Iraqi T-55 tanks and two statues of Saddam.
Toppling the statues, said British Army Maj. Steven McQueenie, was a symbolic gesture of some importance.
"It goes hand in hand with the methodical, pragmatic approach to gaining the trust of the population," he said. "To tell them we're here to stay."
(Knight Ridder correspondents Seth Borenstein and Juan O. Tamayo contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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