'Pause' in doubt as US troops hit elite force

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The Independent Online

American airborne troops launched a preliminary offensive against the Republican Guard defending Baghdad yesterday, despite reports from other US commanders that the advance had been placed "on pause".

American airborne troops launched a preliminary offensive against the Republican Guard defending Baghdad yesterday, despite reports from other US commanders that the advance had been placed "on pause".

The 101st Airborne Division attacked units of the Medina Division of the Republican Guard defending the Karbala Gap, south-west of the Iraqi capital, claiming later to have killed 50 soldiers and destroyed 25 tanks.

The battle for the Karbala Gap – a 20-mile-wide strip of land between a lake and the river Euphrates – is expected to be the first stage in the battle for Baghdad proper. Yesterday's attack, backed by Apache helicopters, was probably an attempt to probe the Iraqi positions to gauge their remaining strength after days of bombardment from the air.

The assault suggested, however, that reports of a "six-day pause" in the US main advance should be treated with caution. American journalists travelling with other advance units were told that a delay of four to six days had been ordered because of supply shortages and stiff Iraqi resistance.

Field officers south of the capital said the "operational pause", ordered on Friday, meant that northward advances would be put on hold while the military tried to sort out logistics problems caused by long supply lines from Kuwait and the delays caused by harassment from Iraqi flying columns. Food rations have been cut sharply for at least some frontline US units, they said, and fuel use has been limited. US troops were said to be receiving only one ration pack a day, instead of three.

However, other allied commanders in Kuwait and Qatar denied that there had been any freeze in military activity. US President George Bush also claimed in his weekly radio address yesterday that some US units were now less than 50 miles from Baghdad – closer than Washington has claimed before.

Overall, the conflicting information could be a deliberate attempt to confuse the Iraqi defenders. A British spokesman, Group Captain Al Lockwood, said the attackers needed to prepare for a new phase. "It is simply a matter of shaping the battle space, shaping the battlefield, getting up troops equipped with all the assets they will need for the next part of the campaign," he said. He said that the overall war plan was "on track and on time".

There were also signs yesterday that British forces encircling the southern city of Basra were probing Iraqi defences, possibly in preparation for an assault. Tanks from the Scots Dragoon Guards led a daring night incursion into the heart of the city for the first time on Friday night, destroying a number of "symbolic targets" including a 20ft high statue of Saddam Hussein, a headquarters for the Iraqi militia defending the city and and a television and radio mast.

David Ross, the tank commander whose Challenger 2 tank destroyed the statue, said: "I got it in my sights. We got the first round in and it only took one round.

"It was a black, cast-iron statue of Saddam Hussein in a greatcoat with his right arm raised in the air. It just sort of crumpled. There was a big flash and sparks everywhere and it disappeared – it was gone. I wish it was the real thing."

Up to 200 members of the ruling Baath party were claimed to have been killed near Basra when US warplanes fired missiles that destroyed a building in which they were meeting.

The US admitted yesterday that several of its Tomahawk cruise missiles – blamed for the market massacre in Baghdad on Friday night – had flown so far off course that they had landed in Saudi Arabia. The US has promised the Saudis that it will not fire any more missiles over Saudi territory until the problems has been identified and sorted out.

Overall, the battlefield position was confusing – maybe deliberately so. Although airborne troops were moving forwards north of Najaf, Marines and other airborne troops – supposedly part of the spearhead of the advance – were being deployed to quell Iraqi hit-and-run raiders in towns further south, including Nasiriyah, only 50 miles north of Kuwait. Military analysts said they were convinced that the all-out attack on Baghdad – or even an attempt to encircle Baghdad – could not start until the arrival of reinforcements from the United States.

But they said that a preliminary battle was shaping up in the Karbala area, which would – if successful – give the US domination of the plains south of the capital, and, maybe more usefully, a victory to counter claims that the allied campaign had bogged down.

The British Government claimed yesterday that there were signs of serious divisions in the Iraqi leadership. Downing Street took the unusual step of releasing intelligence reports which indicated that Saddam Hussein had sacked his cousin, Musahim Saab al-Takriti, as head of Iraq's air defences.

The Government hinted that this could suggest that Iraqi anti-aircraft missiles – rather than US missiles – had been responsible for the two strikes on markets in Baghdad which have killed a total of 69 civilians in the past three days. Downing Street offered no firm proof of such a connection.

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