US marines pay high toll on road to Baghdad
By Michael Smith, Defence Correspondent, and Neil Tweedie in Qatar
American troops fought running battles with Iraqi forces yesterday around two
towns where columns advancing on Baghdad have come under heavy fire for several
Hundreds of Iraqis and tens of American servicemen have been killed in fighting
along the road past the southern town of Nasiriyah, which the US marines have
dubbed "ambush alley".
At least one marine was killed and 16 listed as missing in yesterday's heavy
Troops from 1 Marine Expeditionary Force have pushed across the Euphrates near
Nasiriyah, heading towards the Iraqi capital on a route via Kut where the
Baghdad Division of the Republican Guard is waiting for them.
Allied aircraft dropped a number of bombs, including a 2,000lb weapon, on
Nasiriyah yesterday, destroying an Iraqi command post. Marines and Iraqi forces
exchanged tank and artillery fire in a clash that set the power plant and other
buildings on fire and left a shroud of thick black smoke over the town.
RAF Chinook helicopters came under fire as they ferried in more US marines to
reinforce the units providing cover for convoys of troops to pass the town.
A US marine Chinook trying to pick up casualties and deliver supplies was
forced to turn back after being fired on by Iraqi small arms and
rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
The marines have come under continuous harassing fire from several thousand
Iraqi forces, some Fedayeen irregulars, others Republican Guard, with at least
two "friendly fire" accidents increasing the number of American casualties.
The Iraqi Defence Ministry claims that Republican Guard, Fedayeen
paramilitaries and Ba'ath party militiamen have killed "large numbers" of
American troops and destroyed a number of tanks and armoured personnel
US spokesmen at Qatar have been wary about discussing casualties amid a fluid
situation with repeated clashes but they admit that across the central front
there have been "multiple incidents with multiple casualties".
But details of a much larger number of casualties than previously reported are
beginning to emerge.
More than 12 US soldiers who are believed to have taken a wrong turn were
killed in an ambush.
Nine marines who died during fierce fighting around Nasiriyah on Wednesday are
believed to have been killed by an A10 Thunderbolt "tankbuster" aircraft which
was giving them air support.
A number of burnt-out US armoured vehicles were clearly visible in television
footage from Nasiriyah and at one point US troops could be seen coming under
fire from Iraqi multi-barrelled rocket launchers, a weapon most likely to have
belonged to Republican Guard units.
To the north of Nasiriyah, marines protected by tanks and air cover pushed
north towards Baghdad clashing repeatedly with Iraqi fighters as they advanced.
One marine artillery commander said the troops were engaged in basic
"blue-collar warfare", adding: "There's no magic solution to it. It is just the
hard-grinding work of patrols."
There was also continued fighting overnight around the town of Najaf, 100 miles
south of Baghdad, where troops from the 3rd Infantry Division have also been
fighting running battles with Iraqi troops for the past five days.