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Allies Gear Up for Major Battle Against Elite Iraqi Units

Waves of U.S. planes provide explosive support for troops marching toward Baghdad. The planes strike before American forces plan to launch a massive attack against Republican Guard.

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A sandstorm has slowed the progress of coalition troops

Lt. Cmdr. Vic Bendi was unable to see his targets from 40,000 feet on Monday night. But the Naval aviator had no doubts that his precision-guided bombs found their mark anyway.

"Whatever was there a couple of seconds later is no longer there," Bendi told reporters after returning to the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk early Tuesday.

Bendi was part of an air-strike force assembled to support U.S. ground forces advancing toward Baghdad. It was a busy night despite the cloudy weather.

"There's a lot of battles, I mean all the way up and down the Euphrates (River)," the 34-year-old Bendi said after returning from a mission near the Shiite Muslim pilgrimage city of Karbala, 62 miles (100 kilometers) south of Baghdad.

And he said the planes quickly had targets to hit. "You just hear guys checking in, 'Hey, I got all this ordnance. Where do you need it?'" Bendi said.

The planes delivered their support hours before a major battle was expected to take place against elite Iraqi units. A summary of the morning's fighting follows.

Drive Toward Baghdad

The push to capture the Iraq capital of Baghdad neared a crucial phase Tuesday near the city of Najaf as U.S. troops backed by Apache helicopter gunships prepared an all-out assault on Iraq's elite Republican Guard.

U.S. officials said about 30 to 40 Apaches, the Americans' most fearsome attack helicopter, made initial runs against the Republican Guard as the prelude to a large tank battle.

The United States has three main forces heading toward Baghdad: The U.S. Army's Third Infantry Division is less than 62 miles (100 kilometers) south of Baghdad. The 101st Airborne Division is moving up from the southwest, and U.S. Marines are advancing to the east.

British Minister Tony Blair said Monday that the Americans were gearing up to take on the Republican Guard's Medina Division near the Shiite Muslim pilgrimage town of Karbala. "This will be a crucial moment," Blair told the British parliament.

Nasiriyah

After encountering determined resistance, a column of about 4,000 U.S. Marines crossed the Euphrates River in the city of Nasiriyah on Tuesday. Heavy artillery fire was heard throughout the night, and troops on the edge of the city observed firefights through their night vision equipment. "It was a one-sided battle, as far as we know there are no U.S. casualties," chief hospital corpsman Tony Garcia said.

Ungebrochener Widerstand

U.S. Marines

The Marines said on Sunday that they were in control of two bridges in the city, one over the Euphrates and one over the Saddam Canal, two miles to the north. But they had been unable to control the streets in between and took casualties on Sunday when Iraqi forces mounted a guerrilla counterattack.

Later, U.S. forces lined the route between the bridges with tanks and other armored vehicles and began pushing a huge convoy of troops and vehicles through the city. Fighting subsided later Tuesday morning as Cobra helicopters scoured the city and marshlands for Iraqis and as sporadic firing from U.S. mortars hit targets inside Nasiriyah.

Reuters correspondent Sean Maguire saw two Iraqi men, apparently civilians, who had been shot dead. Women wept over the bodies. On the outskirts, houses and villages flew white flags and Iraqi women tended flocks of sheep.

A northward advance on the far bank of the Euphrates could form the eastward arm of a pincer movement on Baghdad, 235 miles north of Nassiriya.

Baghdad bombed again

Baghdad was rocked early Tuesday by intense bombing raids on the outskirts of the capital, where clouds of smoke from burning fuel trenches blackened the sky. The bombardment seemed to be hitting the southern suburbs, where Washington says the Republican Guard is defending Baghdad's approaches. U.S. or British warplanes could be heard roaring at high altitude over the capital, but could not be seen amid the dark clouds created by the burning fuel, which the Iraqis ignited on Saturday in an apparent attempt to blur visibility during the air attacks.

Hussein still strong support outside Baghdad

With resistance lingering in such southern cities as Basra, Umm Qasr and Nasiriyah, victory in Baghdad may still leave U.S. commanders presiding over a dangerous country. Coalition officers in the field also have acknowledged they had underestimated the strength of Iraqi resistance and the loyalty Saddam commands in places like Basra, where the Americans had anticipated an ecstatic welcome.

"We were expecting a lot of hands up from Iraqi soldiers and for the humanitarian operation in Basra to begin fairly quickly behind us," British Capt. Patrick Trueman said. "But it hasn't quite worked out that way. We always had the idea that everyone in this area hated Saddam. Clearly, there are a number who don't."

Turkey-US officials meet

Turkish and U.S. officials met in Ankara for a second day Tuesday to discuss Ankara's intention of sending troops into Kurdish-held northern Iraq, a plan that has attracted criticism both from Washington and European allies.

It wants to deploy troops there to stop refugees and Turkish Kurdish rebel from crossing into Turkey.

Information on troop movements, victims and damage estimates are based on information from parties involved in the war and cannot be independently verified.

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