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Coalition Forces Encounter Heavy Fire on Advance to Baghdad - 2003-03-24


As coalition forces in Iraq advance toward Baghdad, they are encountering heavy fire from the Iraqi army and the elite Republican Guard. Meanwhile, other allied units are trying to consolidate their hold on areas of southern Iraq where they are still encountering pockets of resistance.

Allied Forces in Iraq have run into heavy resistance in their drive northward toward Baghdad. Pitched battles are still being fought in and around the city of Nasiriyah, where coalition forces suffered casualties on Sunday. Heavy fighting is also reported in Najaf, a city located 160 kilometers from Baghdad.

In the south, U.S. and British units advancing on Basra say the city is not yet secured. Fighting also continues at the port of Umm Qasr, on the border with Kuwait, where U.S.-led tanks, ground-attack jets, artillery and infantry have failed to dislodge a contingent of Republican Guards that is carrying out guerrilla-style attacks.

On Sunday, U.S. Marines engaged in what allied commanders called the sharpest battle of the war so far. The Marines lost at least nine men near Nasiriyah when they came under fire while preparing to accept what appeared to be the surrender of an Iraqi unit. In another engagement in the same area, Iraqi forces ambushed a U.S. army supply convoy that apparently lost its way. Twelve soldiers were declared missing as a result of that engagement.

General John Abuzaid, the deputy commander of combined coalition forces, described the incidents to reporters at a briefing in Qatar. "In one incident, a flag of surrender was displayed and it was followed up by artillery fire," he said. "In another incident, there were troops dressed in civilian clothes that appeared to welcome the forces and then ambushed them. None of these incidents, however, I would characterize as posing a danger to the overall success of the mission or the thrust of the main force toward Baghdad."

General Abuzaid said five of the missing soldiers ended up being publicly interrogated on Iraqi television. Also shown were the bodies of other purported American troops lying in an Iraqi morgue.

President Bush demanded that Iraq adhere to the Geneva Conventions on the humane treatment of prisoners of war. "The POWs, I expect them to be treated humanely, just like we're treating the prisoners that we have captured humanely," he said. "If not, the people who mistreat the prisoners will be treated as war criminals."

U.S. forces have taken command of a suspected chemical plant near Najaf and are investigating whether the facility was used to make banned weapons.

But allied spokesman Group Captain Al Lockwood of the Royal Air Force stresses that it is premature to say that the plant produced chemical weapons. "We'll obviously examine it, and we'll get independent verification from an international source to ensure that we've made the right find before we go public on that," he said. "I have nothing concrete that I can give you, other than what I've heard from open source reporting, but we are fully prepared to find these sites."

Meanwhile, coalition warplanes started off the day by pounding Baghdad. Loud explosions rocked the Iraqi capital, and fires cast an orange glow over the city. Bombs also rained down on the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

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