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US, British Troops Push Toward Basra - 2003-03-21

U.S. and British forces are continuing their push into southern Iraq, heading toward the key city of Basra.

American and British soldiers are encountering both hostile fire and white flags of surrender in their race across the desert toward Basra.

Hundreds of Iraqi soldiers have surrendered, while others have fired at advancing coalition troops.

Many of the troops are passing burning oil wells that are sending plumes of acrid, black smoke into the sky.

British soldiers have secured the Faw peninsula on the Persian Gulf, where strategic oil facilities are located.

U.S. military officials are reporting the first combat fatality of the war.

They say a U.S. Marine was killed in fighting during an advance on an oil field in southern Iraq.

President Bush was informed of the death and expressed his regrets.

Earlier, eight British and four American soldiers were killed when a U.S. Marine helicopter crashed in northern Kuwait.

There were no reports of hostile fire in the area.

Pentagon officials are denying claims by the Iraqi military that its anti-aircraft batteries shot down a U.S. or British warplane during an air raid Friday.

Defense planners have so far held back on ordering a massive air assault.

Coalition forces have used limited air strikes and what appears to be a lightening-fast ground assault.

Pentagon officials are intensifying efforts to convince Iraqi soldiers, including Republican Guard units, to surrender.

They hope to limit the casualty count as well as the damage that large-scale bombing raids would cause.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon released a statement saying water could be used as a weapon in the Iraqi military arsenal.

Defense officials say Iraq could deliberately use flooding by releasing water from reservoirs or destroying dams.

The Pentagon says Iraq used this tactic to deter Iranian troop advances during the Iran-Iraq war.

Defense officials say such a move could displace thousands of Iraqis causing a major humanitarian crisis.