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US General: Toughest Fighting of War Took Place Sunday in Southern Iraq - 2003-03-24

A top U.S. general in the Gulf says U.S. Marines defeated Iraqi forces near the southern Iraqi city of An Nasiriyah Sunday in the toughest battle of the war so far. Lieutenant General John Abizaid, deputy commander of coalition forces, says that, despite casualties suffered in Sunday's action, his troops will soon be in Baghdad.

The U.S. Central Command forward headquarters in Doha, Qatar, said allied forces met with significant resistance as they approached An Nasiriyah. In what General Abizaid called the sharpest engagement of the war thus far, U.S. forces sustained about 10 casualties but eventually overcame Iraqi resistance.

General Abizaid said the dead were U.S. Marines who came under fire while preparing to accept what appeared to be the surrender of an Iraqi contingent.

In a separate engagement near An Nasiriyah, Iraqi forces ambushed a U.S. army supply convoy that apparently lost its way. General Abizaid said 12 soldiers were missing as a result of that encounter.

Briefing reporters, the general described the incidents as ruses perpetrated by the enemy.

"In one incident, a flag of surrender was displayed, and it was followed up by artillery fire. In another incident, there were troops dressed in civilian clothes that appeared to welcome the forces and then ambushed them," he said. "So there are a number of incidents occurring to the rear of the main combat forces. 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 forces towards Baghdad."

General Abizaid said allied forces will be more cautious from now on when approaching Iraqi troops who appear to be willing to surrender. He declined to specify when U.S. forces would reach Baghdad, but said they will be in the Iraqi capital soon.

Despite the casualties near An Nasiriyah, the general said the Marines successfully defeated the enemy and destroyed Iraqi tanks, anti-aircraft batteries and artillery.

Central Command says it believes the 12 soldiers who went missing after the attack on the supply convoy were captured by irregular forces that carried out the ambush. General Abizaid said some of the soldiers later showed up on Iraqi television as prisoners of war along with footage of the bodies of other purported American troops.

The general called the display of the captured soldiers on Iraqi television unacceptable, disgusting and a clear violation of the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war.