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Iraqi Troops On Collision Course with U.S. Soldiers

A column of tanks and personnel carriers believed to belong to Iraq's Republican Guard is heading toward U.S. forces and could reach them Thursday morning.

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Iraqi troops may be planning counter-offensive against U.S. troops while the sand is still in their eyes.

CNN reported on Wednesday that a column of 1,000 Iraqi tanks and troop transports had begun traveling from Baghdad south to Najaf, site of a key bridge over the Euphrates River captured earlier by U.S. forces. Military analysts said the troop movement could be an attempt by the elite Iraqi Republican Guard to exploit weakness of the U.S. troops during an intense sandstorm.

A blizzard of choking dust kept the 101st Airborne Division's fleet of more than 270 attack helicopters out of the battle for the second day. The sandstorm grounded anti-tank helicopters and planes that are used for the troops' defense.

However, some bombers were still able to fly on Wednesday, and CNN reported that U.S. commanders had called in air strikes to provide close air support and slow the advance of Iraqi troops in two crucial areas.

U.S. and British fighter jets also began attacking a separate convoy of 70-120 Iraqi tanks and armored personnel carriers making its way from Basra in southeast Iraq to the al-Faw peninsula.

U.S. concedes possible civilian deaths in Baghdad

In a separate development, the coalition's Qatar-based Central Command on Wednesday conceded that an attack targeted at Iraqi missiles and launchers may have resulted in the accidental deaths of civilians because the Iraqis had hidden the missiles in a residential area. Iraqi officials said 16 people were killed and many more injured when a bomb struck near a market in Baghdad's Shaab neighborhood. Residents there reported the market had been struck by two missiles.

Annan Calls for Humanitarian Relief

Shaken by the deaths, United Nations General Secretary Kofi Annan called for the nations leading the war against Iraq to take greater steps to protect Iraq's civilian population. "I'm getting increasingly concerned by humanitarian casualties in this conflict," he told reporters at UN headquarters in New York. The statements came on the heels of a meeting of UN aid organizations, which are preparing relief operations for Iraq, and a Security Council meeting at which Annan discussed a draft resolution that would allow him to revive Iraq's oil-for-food program for 45 days, which provides food relief to more than 13 million Iraqis.

Meanwhile, the UN World Food Program has raised the specter that the Iraq crisis could result in the largest humanitarian relief program in the organization's history. After the war, the organization estimates it may have to provide food to close to 27 million Iraqis -- larger than any previous emergency it has had to deal with.

Bush: "War far from over"

Speaking hours before a visit from his closest ally in the war against Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, U.S. President George W. Bush said people should not expect the war to end quickly. "The military is making good progress in Iraq and yet the war is far from over," he said. The closer the troops get to Baghdad, the more dangerous the situation will become, Bush warned during a speech at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. "As they approach Baghdad, our fighting units are facing the most desperate elements of a doomed regime... We cannot predict the final day of the Iraqi regime, but I can assure you ... that day is drawing near," he said.

The coalition appeared to slow its advance toward Baghdad on Wednesday. Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Sajjid el Sahhaf told reports: "They're not moving forward anymore." And British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon hasn't reported any additional forward movement since Tuesday. "The focus of our effort will now shift towards close air support of coalition ground forces advancing on Baghdad...The regime has effectively lost control of southern Iraq," he said. The U.S., too, said it was planning a shift in its military strategy -- including the addition of 30,000 troops. The main strategy now will be to stamp out resistance fighters in the center and southern parts of the country.

A Pentagon official told CNN that U.S. war planners underestimated the strength of paramilitary Fedayeen Saddam fighters that have attacked U.S. and British troops this week. "We may have underestimated that they were dispersed to so many places across Iraq to enforce regime discipline. It's clear now that they dispersed sometime before the war began," the official told the news channel.

Baghdad bombed

Bombing sorties to Iraq continued on Wednesday night. Eyewitnesses reported a series of heavy explosions in the southern outskirts of the city, where members of Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard have been positioned to defend the city. Arab news network Al-Jazeera described the bombings as the "heaviest" on the five-million resident capital since the start of the war.

Fight for Basra continues

British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said Wednesday that Iraqi militia had attacked their own citizens in the southern city of Basra after local people staged an uprising there against the regime. Baghdad has dismissed the claims of a revolt as U.S. "lies" aimed at demoralizing the Iraqi people.

A reporter for Al-Jazeera inside the city said he could find no popular uprising. "The streets of Basra are very calm. ... There are no signs of the reported uprising," Mohammed al-Abdallah reported.

Also on Wednesday, British forces fired artillery at the headquarters of Saddam's ruling Baath party in Basra in support of what they say is an uprising by residents, a military spokesman said Wednesday. British forces who are massed on the outskirts of Basra decided to attack people loyal to Saddam after they began firing at the local population, Group Capt. Al Lockwood said.

Shuttle diplomacy

British Prime Minister Blair arrived in Washington Wednesday night for a war council with President George W. Bush, eager to convince his ally that the United Nations must play a central role in post-war Iraq. Washington said on Tuesday that it was trying to determine what kind of role should be played by the United Nations, which is deeply divided over the war.

But Blair said he was confident the Security Council would come together to pass a second resolution on aid, reconstruction and a future administration for Iraq. Diplomats said Russia, France, China and Syria -- staunch opponents of the war -- were wary of a resolution that would have the United Nations coordinate efforts with U.S. and British troops and thereby legitimize the military action.

Compiled by DW-WORLD staff with information from wires

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