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Sandstorms Impede Advance of US Troops - 2003-03-26

VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu is with the Army's Third Infantry Division near Baghdad in Central Iraq. London Bureau Editor Kevin Lynch spoke to her by satellite phone about activities overnight and early in the day.

LYNCH: Alisha, the sandstorms are continuing, we understand. Could you tell us, are they affecting the advance of the troops? What happened overnight?

RYU: Yes, the sandstorms are continuing. The U.S. forces are still making some progress. Last night the 3rd Infantry Division's 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry, known as the 3-7, had a fierce battle overnight with Iraqi forces.

These U.S. troops have been fighting in the past 24 hours; they have quite a few of these Iraqi, what they call light infantry men, perhaps irregular army people, they are not quite sure who they are. But they show up in these light civilian pickup trucks with heavy machine guns mounted on the back, and they engage this mechanized unit. There was fierce fighting. In the past 24 hours, several hundred Iraqi troops have been killed, in various battles with the 3-7 unit of the 3rd Infantry Division.

Last night was particularly heavy. This happened just south of the town of Najaf, going up towards Baghdad. Now, I understand, that the 3rd Infantry Division has almost encircled the town of Najaf, and things have quieted down. The battle, I believe, ended about 5:00 a.m. local time, 2:00 a.m. UT. They were supported by close air support. They brought in some jets to help out the 3-7, and they dropped some precision-guided munitions and tried to break up the forces that were putting up quite a fierce resistance, apparently. There were no U.S. casualties, but we are told that two tanks - these are the M-1 Abrams - and one Bradley fighting vehicle were damaged by some type of rocket-propelled grenade that were fired by these Iraqi forces. The crew were not hurt; they were evacuated. They are being pulled back and taken care of.

Now the Marines, apparently, are on course to their objective. We are getting sporadic reports this morning that they are running into some resistance just north of Al-Nasiriyah. That is were they have had some problems for the past several days now, and north of it they are running into some resistance again. But the liaison for the Marines here at the Marine Corps command headquarters said that he is very confident that they are on course toward their objective: Baghdad.

LYNCH: Alisha, are you in a position to tell us anything about efforts to get humanitarian aid into Iraq?

RYU: That is primarily a Marine-British troop endeavor down in southern Iraq. U.S. Navy Seals will probably be brought in there to clear the mines in the port city of Basra there, to make sure the ships are not damaged when the humanitarian aid comes in. President Bush, I believe, said that the humanitarian aid for the Iraqi people will be brought in as soon as possible, and I do know that they are using some mine-detecting dolphins, to make sure that the shipping lanes are clear and that the humanitarian aid can come down as soon as possible. I believe that Umm Qasr and Basra are now secure enough they feel they can bring the humanitarian in as early as 24 hours.

LYNCH: Alisha, you have been telling us about the sandstorms. Are there any predictions as to when they will end?

RYU: Hopefully it will end by tomorrow [Thursday]. The weather forecast is much better tomorrow. Of course, the weather is still hampering air operations. The helicopters are still grounded for the most part. The winds have picked up again, and they are creating quite a visibility hazard. The visibility is quite low, and of course the helicopters have trouble flying in this kind of condition. I think today is another day where helicopter flying is going to be rather, rather limited, if at all. We're not quite sure if it's going to have the intensity of yesterday's sandstorm. Yesterday was just incredible. I have never seen anything like it. Everybody was in "shock and awe" of Mother Nature here, so we are hoping that it is not going to be as bad today.

LYNCH: Alisha, have you come across any Iraqi civilians? Have you had a chance to meet any Iraqi people?

RYU: No. We passed by a goat herder or someone very much alone, out in the open in the desert by themselves, but in terms of coming across a large civilian population, we are pretty much in the middle of a desert - no-man's land.