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U.S. Forces Engaged in Fierce Battle with Iraqi Troops

Americans reported on Wednesday that up to 650 enemy soldiers were killed during battles with U.S. armored units near the city of Najaf. The march on Baghdad is now being slowed by a powerful sand storm.

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Sand drifts: A desert storm has slowed the march toward Baghdad by U.S. forces in southern Iraq.

The U.S.-led war against Iraq entered its seventh day on Wednesday with fresh bombing of the capital and bloody clashes between advancing U.S. troops and Iraqi soldiers.

U.S. troops bound for the Iraqi captial killed hundreds of Iraqis in the biggest battle so far of the war near the Shiite Muslim holy city of Najaf, U.S. officers said on Wednesday.

The fight pitted U.S. troops in Abrams tanks and Bradley armored fighting vehicles against soldiers with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, the officers said. The Iraqis stood little chance.

"An estimated 650 Iraqis were killed over the last 24 hours in the Najaf area," said Maj. John Altman of the Third Infantry Division. The U.S. unit suffered no casualties in the fighting that occurred about 120 miles (200 kilometers) south of Baghdad.

Sandstorm hampers march on Baghdad

The division is the lead element in a three-pronged push being directed at the elite Republican Guard units defending the capital. Portions of the U.S. division are positioned near Kerbala, about 60 miles from the capital, field reports said. The U.S. 101st Airborne Division has been fighting its way through a blinding sandstorm in the march from the southwest, while the Marines are approaching from the east.

The 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 Wednesday. "We've got everything we need to carry out the mission, but the weather is absolutely horrid," Colonel Greg Gass said as gusts of up to 50 knots (75 miles per hour) whipped the desert encampment.

A U.S. Apache and a Black Hawk helicopter attached to the Third Infantry Division were lost in southern Iraq when visibility was cut to 100 yards, a senior U.S. officer said.

Baghdad faces another bout of air strikes

Repeated air raids struck the southern outskirts of Baghdad on Wednesday and another hit an area that houses the television center. But Iraqi television remained on the air in the capital.

"Not long before daybreak, the coalition struck Iraq's main television station, as well as a key telecommunications vault and Baghdad satellite communications, damaging the regime's command and control capability," a U.S. official said in Washington.

Several air raids since dawn also targeted areas to the south of the city. Saddam's Republican Guards are believed to be dug in on the southern flank of the city to defend it against invading U.S. and British forces.

Air strikes have left about 30 civilians dead and more than 400 wounded in and around Baghdad, according to Iraqi figures.

Fight for Basra continues

Verteidigungsminister Geoff Hoon Großbritannien

Geoff Hoon

British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon (photo) 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 the Al-Jazeera television channel 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..

While the coalition forces are still trying to secure Basra, they have finally won total control of the key port of Umm Qasr on the Kuwaiti border, opening the way for the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Blair to meet with Bush

Tony Blair in House of Commons

Tony Blair

British Prime Minister Tony Blair (photo) planned to fly to Washington on Wednesday 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.

Northern Iraq comes under attack

Warplanes pounded forward Iraqi positions in the north of the country on Wednesday as U.S. efforts to open a second, limited front Iraqi forces speeded up. Five large explosions threw up plumes of black smoke on the hilltops overlooking Chamchamal, a town in the Kurd-controlled Iraqi enclave wrested from Baghdad after the 1991 Gulf War.

Local Kurds, bitter enemies of Saddam's government, cheered as a loud blast followed a few seconds after each explosion. But a senior Kurdish commander controlling the area around Chamchamal, which lies 22 miles east of the key oil city of Kirkuk that Saddam controls, said the Americans needed to do more to rout the Iraqi forces effectively. "I don't like this kind of attack," Mam Rostam told Reuters in Chamchamal minutes after the bombing ended. "It needs to be much heavier if they want to bring a swift end to this war."

Another commander expressed doubts about the number of soldiers the United States has sent to the north. U.S special forces have been in the north for some months and, since war began last week, they have used the Kurdish enclave to guide U.S. and British warplanes to their targets around the government-held cities of Mosul and Kirkuk. But Babekir Zebari, commander for the Dohuk area, said, "I don't believe the Americans have the significant numbers to open a front in this area, at least for the time being."

Other Developments

-- Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov warned Wednesday that the U.S.-led war in Iraq was doomed. "The United States and Great Britain do not even know themselves what principles are at stake here. First, they talked about disarming Iraq, then regime change and now they are talking about democratizing the country," he said. Russia has been one of the most outspoken opponents of the war.

-- Two British soldiers were killed and two severely wounded in a friendly fire incident between two of the British army's high-tech Challenger II tanks in fighting outside Basra, British officials said. Twenty British servicemembers have been killed in war accidents and combat. Sixteen Americans have been killed, several are missing and seven are believed held prisoner.

-- The soldier suspected of a grenade attack on members of his own unit at a U.S. army camp in Kuwait has been transferred to a military jail in southwest Germany, an army spokesman said Wednesday. The soldier, identified as Sgt. Asan Akhbar from the 101st Infantry Division, was flown from northern Kuwait to a jail at Coleman Barracks in Mannheim. Akhbar is accused of rolling three or four grenades into tents at the camp over the weekend, killing a fellow soldier and wounding a dozen more.

-- Turkey will send extra troops into northern Iraq, in coordination with the United States, if forces currently there are unable to cope with security concerns, Turkish army chief Hilmi Ozkok said Wednesday. Turkey already has several thousand soldiers in northern Iraq, where it has maintained a military presence since 1997 to fight Turkish Kurdish rebels. Despite harsh opposition both from Washington and warnings by the European Union and NATO, Turkey has insisted it will send troops into northern Iraq if it deems it necessary. Turkey is concerned over possible moves by Iraqi Kurds to assert independence, a prospect that could reignite a separatist Kurdish rebellion in adjoining southeastern Turkey.

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.

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