Coalition forces in southern and central Iraq are continuing to fight off attacks and ambushes by small groups of Iraqi forces. The just concluded battle between U.S. ground forces and Iraqi militiamen south of the central Iraqi city of an-Najaf, has been the clearest indication yet that Saddam Hussein's forces are employing guerrilla warfare tactics against coalition troops.

Early Tuesday, U.S. Army units came under machine-gun attack from a group of Iraqi men, who were approaching the unit in light pick-up trucks and wearing civilian clothing. The army says the men turned out not to be civilians, but paramilitary fighters loyal to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.

Later in the day, during a fierce sandstorm, more Iraqi militiamen in civilian clothing attacked the same unit, and disabled two M-1 Abrahms tanks and a Bradley fighting vehicle with rocket-propelled grenades. No U.S. soldiers were injured.

The skirmishes continued into the night. By early Wednesday morning, the Third Infantry's 3-7 Cavalry unit, aided by close air support from the U.S. Air Force, had killed several hundred Iraqi fighters and had destroyed a dozen light pick-up trucks.

U.S. military commanders believe Iraqi forces are using such guerrilla tactics because Iraqi tanks and other military equipment are out of date and cannot match American military technology.

At the same time, coalition officers and reporters in the field say the Iraqi forces are hiding among civilians. The coalition says it will do everything possible to avoid hurting civilians, but it will not allow the Iraqi tactics to stop the advance on Baghdad.

Still, U.S. Marine Colonel Mario Enriquez says the Iraqi strategy is creating problems for front-line troops.

"The problem is now our soldiers and Marines are going to hesitate and are going to react to a civilian that's going to come up to them," he explained. "They will respond now, which may create some incidents where they may shoot an innocent person just because he made some moves we would consider threatening. And based on what's been happening, you can't blame them."

On Monday, U.S. Marines on an operation to secure the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah, discovered more than 200 rifles and automatic weapons hidden inside a civilian hospital. Along with the weapons, the Marines also found thousands of chemical suits and atropine, an antidote used to counter the effects of nerve gas exposure.

U.S. military officials say they are concerned that Saddam Hussein could be placing other conventional, and possibly chemical weapons, in civilian areas throughout the country.