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Published: Sunday, 3/23/2003

Allies run into setbacks on the road to Baghdad; U.S. soldiers killed, taken prisoner

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Allied forces confronted a shaken but combative foe in their advance through southern Iraq on Sunday, suffering more combat deaths and the first U.S. prisoners of war. They declared the invasion on target but it was increasingly bloody for the coalition.

Despite a day of dispiriting developments, the U.S.-British coalition fought to within 100 miles of Baghdad and tended to a growing northern front.

Allied soldiers came under attack in a series of ruses, U.S. officials said, with one group of Iraqis waving the white flag of surrender, then opening up with artillery fire; another group appearing to welcome coalition troops but then attacking them.

Lt. Gen. John Abizaid of U.S. Central Command said a faked surrender near An Nasiriyah, a crossing point over the Euphrates River northwest of Basra, set off the “sharpest engagement of the war thus far.” Up to nine Marines died before the Americans prevailed, he said.

Twelve U.S. soldiers were missing and presumed captured by Iraqis in an ambush on an army supply convoy at An Nasiriyah, Central Command said.

“We, of course, will be much more cautious in the way that we view the battlefield as a result of some of these incidents,” Abizaid said.

On the third day of the ground war, any expectation that Iraqi defenders would simply fold was gone.

“Clearly they are not a beaten force,” said Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “This is going to get a lot harder.”

President Bush kept his eye on the big prize — the removal of Saddam Hussein's government and Iraq's eventual disarmament.

“I know that Saddam Hussein is losing control of his country,” Bush said upon his return from the Camp David retreat in Maryland. “We are slowly but surely achieving our objective.” He demanded that U.S. prisoners of war be treated humanely.

With allies closing in, Iraqi leaders appealed for a united Arab front to condemn the invasion but knew they wouldn't get it. “There is no hope in these rulers,” Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan said.

But Russia and Chinese foreign ministers reasserted their view that the invasion has no legal basis and asked for an immediate halt.

Arab television showed what it said were four American dead in an Iraqi morgue and at least five other Americans identified as captured soldiers.

“I come to shoot only if I am shot at,” said one prisoner, who said he was from Kansas. Asked why he was fighting Iraqis, he replied: “They don't bother me; I don't bother them.”

Also, a British warplane was shot down in a friendly-fire attack by U.S. Patriot missiles, its crew of two unaccounted for, and a grenade attack in an Army base in Kuwait left a captain dead and a U.S. soldier as the suspect.

In the most notable gain for the coalition, soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade moved 230 miles in 40 hours, killing scores of Iraqi militiamen who engaged them with machine guns, to take positions less than a day's journey from Baghdad.

The brigade raced day and night across rugged desert in more than 70 tanks and 60 Bradley fighting vehicles. No American injuries were reported in that battle.

Iraqi Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Sultan Hashim Ahmed expressed confidence his troops can hold the capital.

“If they want to take Baghdad they will have to pay a heavy price,” he said.

Several other allied units engaged in intensive gunbattles Sunday. In southern Iraq, a soldier from the 3rd Infantry Division died in a vehicle accident.

Efforts intensified to assemble forces in northern Iraq, where air strikes have gone after radicals linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network but prospects for ground assaults have been limited because neighboring Turkey balked on becoming a staging ground.

Mohammad Haji Mahmoud, leader of the Kurdistan Social Democratic Party, said the Americans are welcome. “We're not going to say no to anything the Americans want,” he said.

In Kuwait, U.S. officials investigated the attack at the 101st Airborne Division's command center, where an assailant threw grenades into three tents. Three of the wounded were seriously injured; Capt. Christopher Scott Seifert, 27, died.

The suspect, found hiding in a bunker, is an engineer from an engineering platoon. The motive “most likely was resentment,” said Max Blumenfeld, an Army spokesman, without elaboration.

The accidental downing of the British plane was another blow. The Tornado GR4, based in Marham, Britain, was returning from an operational mission early Sunday and was engaged by the missile battery, British officials said.

It was the third aerial accident involving British personnel since the war began. Six British troops and a U.S. Navy officer died when two British helicopters collided, while eight British and four U.S. Marines were killed when their helicopter crashed near the Kuwait-Iraqi border.

Iraqi television reported that Saddam Hussein's home town, Tikrit, had been bombed several times.

Near the Persian Gulf, Marines seized an Iraqi naval base Sunday morning at Az Zubayr. In the command center, Marines found half-eaten bowls of rice and other still-warm food.

Near Basra in the south, Marines saw hundreds of Iraqi men — apparently soldiers who had taken off their uniforms — walking along a highway with bundles on their backs past burned-out Iraqi tanks.

Allied forces have captured Basra's airport and a bridge. But commanders say they are in no rush to storm the city, hoping instead that Iraqi defenders decide to give up.

Although Iraq was getting little help diplomatically, many in the Muslim world expressed anger about the war.

Anti-war protests continued in many cities around the world, one of the biggest in Pakistan. Children in Lahore chanted anti-American slogans and other demonstrators carried portraits of Osama bin Laden and Saddam as more than 100,000 people joined in a peaceful rally.

_AP-CS-03-23-03 1620EST



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