US on collision course with elite guards

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The Independent Online

After a series of bloody skirmishes on the road to Baghdad, American forces were preparing yesterday for their first head-on collision with Republican Guard units south-west of the Iraqi capital.

After a series of bloody skirmishes on the road to Baghdad, American forces were preparing yesterday for their first head-on collision with Republican Guard units south-west of the Iraqi capital.

Officers with the US 3rd Infantry Division predicted that battle would be joined in the next two to three days with Republican Guards dug in around the holy city of Kerbala, 70 miles from Baghdad. What remained unclear, however, was whether this would be the beginning of the Battle of Baghdad proper or a preliminary testing of the Guards' defences and willingness to fight.

Clear weather yesterday after two days of thick, swirling sandstorms allowed Allied aircraft to resume their bombardment of the three Republican Guard divisions defending the southern approaches to the capital. American and British aircraft and helicopters flew 600 missions in the area during the day. Iraqi officials said that they had shot down an Apache helicopter but American sources said that none was missing.

US Central Command in Doha denied reports that two columns of Iraqi vehicles – believed to be Republican Guards – had moved aggressively towards American positions under cover of sandstorms on Wednesday. They said the columns turned out to be much lighter, makeshift forces of the kind that have harassed American armour and supply columns since the weekend.

Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, one of the senior US spokesmen, said the attacks had been "dealt with" from the air. He admitted that a number of marines had been injured yesterday after two units mistook one another for the enemy near the town of Nasiriyah 100 miles further south. Reports from correspondents travelling with the US forces said more than 30 marines were injured in "friendly fire" incidents.

There were also reports that marines had come under fire from children, or soldiers dressed in civilian clothes using children as shields.

The sandstorms and the need to divert attack forces to protect supply convoys in the Nasiriyah area have slowed the American drive towards Baghdad in the past 48 hours. There were renewed reports yesterday of shortages of food and ammunition in the American front line.

In a change of tactics, the US has begun to establish a supply and transport hub at Tallil airfield, close to Nasiriyah. Supply aircraft began to land at the airfield to try to shorten the long, and dangerous, road supply route to the advance units.

"There are a lot of forces out there that still want to fight. They didn't exactly roll over and surrender," said one marine helicopter pilot. "We are so wrapped up in not creating collateral damage that we are leaving great enemy strongholds behind."

Two brigades of the 3rd Infantry Division are already approaching Kerbala. The third has been fighting skirmishes in the Nasiriyah area.

Troops told a Reuters correspondent, however, that they were running low on artillery shells and fuel and needed more ammunition. The attack on the Republican Guards around Kerbala is expected once the full division is assembled and its supplies are replenished.

US officers in the field confirmed that 7th Cavalry tank units fought a sharp battle with Iraqis on Wednesday near a bridge over the Euphrates at Abu Sukhayr, south-east of Najaf. Two American Abrams tanks were knocked out – the first to be destroyed in battle – by rockets fired from the rear. The crews were said to have escaped.

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