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U.S. Military Awaits the 'Toughest Fight' in Iraq

U.S.-led forces have begun to pound elite Iraq units in preparation for the assault on Baghdad. In their push towards the Iraqi capital, marines have finally cleared the city of Nasiriya in the south.

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An intense sandstorm slowed down U.S. military near Karbala, Iraq, on Tuesday

The United States' top military commander is pleased with the direction that the war against the regime of Saddam Hussein has taken over the past six days. But the general knows the conflict is far from over.

Richard-Myers

Gen. Richard Myers

"The toughest fight is ahead of us," U.S. Air Force Gen. Richard Myers (photo), chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told ABC television on Tuesday. "We know it will be a very tough battle."

That battle will be for the control of Baghdad. It will pit the U.S.-led forces against something more than the determined bands of fighters armed with grenades and small arms who have slowed efforts to capture some cities in southern Iraq.

"That's where their best units are, the so-called Republican Guard units," Myers said of the force around Baghdad. "They're the best trained, best equipped and reportedly the most loyal to the regime."

The preparation for the coming showdown was one of many war-related developments that occurred on Tuesday. The following is a summary of the events:

The battle for Baghdad

U.S. troops backed by Apache helicopter gunships primed for an all-out assault on Iraq's elite Republican Guard defending the capital. U.S. officers said about 30 to 40 Apaches, the U.S. military's most fearsome attack helicopter, had already made initial runs against the Republican Guard as the prelude to a potentially large tank battle.

The U.S. Army's Third Infantry Division is fewer than 62 miles (100 kilometers) south of Baghdad, and the 101st Airborne Division -- plagued by howling sandstorms -- is crawling up from the southwest.

U.S. Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said at the Pentagon that the attacks by the tank-busting Apaches had "degraded significantly" the Medina Division, one of Iraq's main armored units. "When we finally meet the Republican Guard in a first direct firefight it will be a very different equation than it would have been," McChrystal said after the operations, which saw one Apache downed and its two crewmen captured.

Nasiriya

U.S. Marines finally forced their way across the Euphrates River on Tuesday after a fierce street battle in the southern city of Nasiriya that opened up another new line of advance toward Baghdad.

Cpl. Steven Cassler, 26, said the fighting was the roughest situation he had ever been in. "I would not describe it to my mother because she would be horrified," Cassler said.

Ungebrochener Widerstand

U.S. Marines

Two days after a first bid to cross the river and the Saddam Canal was blocked by Iraqi irregulars, the Marines laid down a two-mile corridor of armored vehicles and the convoy charged through the streets under cover of helicopter rockets and a barrage of artillery, tank and heavy machine-gun fire.

Once the vehicles were across, the tanks and other armor rolled out behind, leaving Iraqi fighters still operating in the dusty city of more than a quarter of a million located 225 miles south of the capital.

Officers counted more than 100 bodies but did not know how many were soldiers or civilians caught in the crossfire of the heaviest fighting in the Iraq war. The odor of burned flesh was said to have filled the air, and the road was strewn with bombed-out vehicles.

The battle was the first taste for the U.S.-British forces of the nasty urban warfare that they had vowed to avoid in their push to oust Saddam. U.S- troops searched house to house in the city where officials said up to 10 American soldiers had been killed over the weekend. U.S. forces suffered new casualties in the fighting, commanders said Tuesday, but they could give no figures until the troops' families had been notified.

Baghdad

Waves of air attacks targeted the outskirts of Baghdad throughout the day, and new explosions rocked the city center as a sandstorm lashed the capital. Reuters correspondent Nadim Ladki said U.S. and British air attacks appeared to be focusing on the outskirts of Baghdad where Iraqi troops are believed to be dug in.

Besides bombings, every day brings news of fresh victories delivered by the country's state-run media. In the propaganda war, the Iraqi media are playing to national pride and patriotism. There is a constant feed of military music, repeats of the latest Saddam footage, Muslim prayer and readings from the Koran, Islam's holy book. Muslim clerics have special programs to rally the masses against a "war on Islam", drawing on sayings by the Prophet Muhammad on "martyrdom" and jihad (holy struggle) against the invaders.

Strategy

Having faced tough resistance in such southern cities as Umm Qasr and Nasiriya, U.S. commanders may have to preside over a dangerous country once the war is over. Coalition officers in the field have acknowledged they underestimated the strength of Iraqi resistance and the loyalty Saddam commands in places like Basra, where the coaliton forces 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."

On Monday, the commander of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq gave an upbeat assessment of the war despite some setbacks. "We've intentionally bypassed enemy formations, to include paramilitary and the Fadayeen (suicide soldiers), and so you can expect that our clean-up operations are going to be ongoing across the days in the future."

But military analysts said the dash to Baghdad was leaving behind dangerous enemy fighters and chaos in urban areas. They said they feared Franks might be taking undue risks by stretching supply lines for an invasion force simply too small to fight and occupy urban areas in the rear at the same time.

"The force is so light that it probably has the lowest ratio to enemy forces of any major ground campaign we've fielded in the last century," said U.S. analyst Loren Thompson.

The United States, Britain and Australia are fielding a force of about 135,000 servicemembers against about 350,000 Iraqi troops.

Human shields

The air is thick with smoke and U.S. and British warplanes are dropping bombs nearby, but 14 human shields say they are determined to remain at the Al-Dawra refinery, the key source of oil for the Iraqi capital. Six days into the war, six South Africans remain camped out in trailers in the middle of the vast refinery. Eight others of assorted nationalities are staying in a small house adjoining the facility.

Faith Fippinger, a 62-year-old retired teacher from the United States, vowed to stay to the end. "I have been here for more than a month, and I plan to stay, to stand by the innocent people of Iraq," Fippinger said.

Twenty-three South Africans remain in Baghdad as human shields. Four others, however, returned home Tuesday. "Being a human shield when they're throwing bombs won't help anybody," said Mohamed Sulaman, 45, after returning to Johannesburg.

Other developments

-- A U.S. F-16 fighter plane accidentally fired on a Patriot missile battery in southern Iraq, a spokeswoman at the Central Command forward headquarters in Qatar said on Tuesday. There were no casualties in the incident, which took place on Monday about 30 miles south of Najaf, Iraq. It was the second friendly fire incident involving a Patriot since the war in Iraq started last week. In the first, a British Tornado was shot down by a U.S. Patriot missile as it returned to base.The two-member crew is believed to be dead.

-- The United States, eager for stability in northern Iraq, apparently failed on Tuesday in a bid to talk Turkey out of sending troops into the Kurdish-controlled area. "We will continue our discussions in the coming days," U.S.envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said after a second day of talks. The United States and the European Union have told Turkey not to send forces into the area, fearing clashes between them and local Kurdish militia.

-- Iraq fired a missile into Kuwait on Tuesday but a Patriot anti-missile battery shot it down, Kuwaiti defense officials said.

-- The leader of Iraq's main Shi'ite opposition group warned Washington that U.S. troops would face armed resistance if they stayed in Iraq once Saddam was toppled. "Iraqis are against foreign dominance, and if they (the Americans) don't want to leave Iraq, the nation will resist," said Ayatollah Mohammed Bim, head of the Tehran-based Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

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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