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Iraq: Sandstorms Stall Allies Near Baghdad; British Mass Outside Basra

  • Andrew Tully

Washington, 26 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Army forces fought fiercely with Iraqi troops in central Iraq, and British troops have been engaged in sporadic battles with Iraqis defending Basra, the country's second-largest city, near the Persian Gulf.

Wire services, quoting anonymous U.S. defense officials at the Pentagon in Washington, say American forces may have killed between 200 and 300 Iraqi troops in the battle near Najaf, a city about 120 kilometers south of Baghdad. The officials say they have no reports of U.S. casualties.

Meanwhile, U.S. Army forces are positioning themselves within 80 kilometers of Baghdad. On 24 March, they were supported by coalition warplanes and attack helicopters that struck positions of Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard.

Yesterday, however, blinding sandstorms prevented further air attacks on the Iraqi forces that have formed a defensive ring around the capital. As a result, the Americans are limited to using mobile cannons and rockets against them. The storms also have been slowing the progress of thousands of U.S. Marines moving north toward Baghdad.

In the south, British forces equipped with tanks and other armored vehicles are massing outside Basra, a city of about 1.3 million people. An estimated 1,000 Iraqi troops has so far kept British forces from entering Basra. They include elements of the Republican Guard as well as irregulars known as Saddam Fedayeen, or Saddam's guerrillas.

British military spokesman Chris Vernon, speaking yesterday in Kuwait City, said his country's forces are being careful in how they respond to the Iraqis troops in Basra. "We are not firing into the center of the city [Basra] because we cannot risk the collateral damage to the civilians, even though we are being fired on from the center by their artillery," Vernon said.

A British news report said some civilians in Basra are rising up against the Saddam loyalists. The account said the loyalists have been firing mortars at the civilians, and that the British were firing rockets at the loyalists.

Iraq is denying an uprising in Basra, and coalition officials say they cannot confirm the report. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told reporters yesterday in Washington that he knows nothing about an uprising in Basra.

Rumsfeld cautioned the citizens of Basra from endangering their lives by rising up prematurely. But he added, "Anyone who is engaged in an uprising [like in Basra] has got a whale of a lot of courage and I sure hope they are successful."

During the press briefing at the Pentagon, Rumsfeld also expressed concern about some Iranian-backed Iraqis operating in southern Iraq. He said Iran has so far refrained from action that would complicate the allies' military operations.

Rumsfeld said he hopes Iran will continue to stay out of the conflict, but noted that Iran has been hostile to Iraq during the past three decades, and he said Tehran's support of Iraqi dissidents is "unhelpful."

Foreign support of Iraq's government also remains a contentious issue. Yesterday, the Russian government again denied U.S. accusations that it had sold sensitive military equipment to Saddam's military, including six electronic devices for jamming the the global positioning system (GPS), in violation of international sanctions.

"The Washington Post" reported on 23 March that three Russian companies made military sales to Iraq. The report identified them as KBP Tula, which provided antitank guided missiles, and Aviaconversiya, which supplied the jamming devices. Both companies deny the report.

Kremlin spokesman Aleksei Gromov said in Moscow that such an accusation could damage U.S.-Russian relations. He hinted at situations in which the United States had sold military equipment to other countries, but did not identify the purchasers.

The U.S. military says the issue now appears to be irrelevant, at least from a war-fighting point of view. U.S. Air Force General Victor Renuart -- speaking at the allied command center in Doha, the capital of the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar -- said yesterday that coalition warplanes had resolved the issue.

"We have noticed some attempts by the Iraqis to use a GPS jamming system that they have procured from another nation. Actually, we have been able to identify the location of each of those jammers, and I am happy to report that we have destroyed all six of those jammers in the last two nights' air strikes," Renuart said.

Meanwhile, Britain's embattled prime minister, Tony Blair, flies today to the United States to meet with U.S. President George W. Bush. The two men will meet at Camp David, the presidential retreat in the mountains outside Washington. Their meetings will last through tomorrow.

Blair's Iraq policy has met broad popular opposition in Britain and even a small revolt within his Labor Party. Yesterday, seeking to portray his position in the best possible light, the prime minister told a news conference in London that he and Bush will speak of more than war.

"I will see President Bush at Camp David to discuss not just the military campaign, but also the diplomatic implications of recent events for the future, In particular, how we get America and Europe working again together as partners and not as rivals, to assess the best way of dealing with the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, how we rebuild Iraq, post-Saddam, and also, of course, our approach to the Middle East peace process and to the Arab world more generally," Blair said.

Meanwhile, Turkey says it will send its forces no farther than 20 kilometers into northern Iraq to stop any flood of refugees -- and even then only in response to a crisis warranting the introduction of troops.

In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell welcomed the decision by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. "Turkey is a great friend. I am deeply appreciative and all Americans are of the efforts made by Mr.[Tayyip] Erdogan to take this issue to his parliament, and we are in the closest consultation with Prime Minister Erdogan and Foreign Minister [Abdullah] Gul and other officials on their needs and in the closest consultations with them with respect situation in northern Iraq," Powell said.

The United States and the European have been putting pressure on Turkey not to send its forces unilaterally into northern Iraq. The Bush administration says it is concerned that Turkish troops could end up clashing with local Iraqi Kurdish fighters.

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