U.S. jets have struck targets in the central Iraqi city of Najaf, where witnesses say atrocities are being committed by members of Saddam Hussein's Special Republican Guards and paramilitary fighters.
Black smoke plumes rose into the sky Thursday morning after U.S. Navy jets hit at least three targets in Najaf with precision-guided bombs.
Among the targets were headquarters and barracks for the Fedayeen, paramilitary men loyal to Saddam Hussein. Another target was identified as a Fedayeen training facility. The targets were identified several days ago. But two days of intense sandstorms in the area forced the U.S. military to delay the air strikes until Thursday.
The bombings follow reports of atrocities being committed by members of Fedayeen and Saddam Hussein's personal army, the Special Republican Guards, against civilians in Najaf and several other cities along the route to Baghdad. Najaf is the largest of those cities, with a population of about 700,000.
U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Gary Luck said prisoners of war and fleeing refugees are telling tales of civilians being terrorized and executed.
"They have stated that elements of the SRG [Special Republican Guards] and Fedayeen forces are gathering families together," said Colonel Luck. "They are killing family members and conducting random shootings to incite fear in the population and try to muster the people to continue to fight U.S. forces."
U.S. forces continue to battle small groups of Fedayeen fighters. In an area near Najaf, a skirmish broke out between the 3rd Infantry's 2nd Brigade and Fedayeen forces on pickup trucks. No casualties have been reported so far.
In recent days, coalition forces and journalists accompanying the military have heard from numerous captured Iraqi soldiers, who say Iraqi officers have been forcing their foot soldiers to fight at gunpoint. If a soldier refuses to fight, the officer executes the soldier on the spot.
U.S. military commanders believe the Iraqi officers are, in turn, being pressured by the Special Republican Guards and the Fedayeen to remain loyal to Saddam Hussein.
The about 3,000-strong Special Republican Guards is the most feared military unit in Iraq. Based in Baghdad, they act as personal bodyguards for the Iraqi leader.