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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- Battle In Southern Iraq Near Nassiriyah

RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz is embedded with the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division, whose troops were among the first to enter southern Iraq. In this "Desert Dispatch," Synovitz talks about reports that U.S. soldiers have captured the southern Iraqi city of Nassiriyah, a key crossing point on the Euphrates River.

QUESTION: What kind of resistance did the U.S. troops encounter? Were they surprised that Iraqi forces fought back?

SYNOVITZ: Iraqi troops were hopelessly outnumbered and outclassed in the weaponry of U.S. forces in the battle to seize the Talil air base and the [Iraqi] 11th Division's headquarters nearby. With 60 percent of the 11th Division comprised of Shi'ites, a lot of U.S. soldiers had hoped that they would stay in their garrison and park their tanks with the turrets [pointed] backwards, as they had been instructed in leaflets that had been dropped on them in the days before U.S. troops went into Iraq.

Still, too much should not be read into the fact they fought. On the one hand, many of them seemed surprised by the sudden appearance of the U.S. troops from the 3rd Infantry Division on their doorstep. After the battle, some of the Iraqi prisoners of war said they were conscripted by the regime in Baghdad and forced to fight in order to save the lives of some of their family members who they say were being held hostage by Saddam Hussein's regime.

QUESTION: Have you seen any civilians? How did they react to the presence of U.S. troops?

SYNOVITZ: The battle started after dusk. It was only at dawn when civilians began to appear on the roads where U.S. military vehicles had been parked and positioned. The grassy fields around the Talil air base were filled with men in civilian clothes, some of whom had likely been soldiers who slipped away from the fighting in civilian clothing. But also some women, in many cases with children by their side.

All of these civilians that I saw -- and I saw about 40 in number -- they appeared to be testing the warnings that the U.S. warplanes had given and been dropping in leaflets recently. Instead of staying inside their homes or buildings or walking with both hands visible and without any weapons, they seemed to intentionally be violating these instructions, popping in and out of doorways, repeatedly walking with one hand under a cloak, turning around rapidly.

...But since the U.S. psychological operations unit has been driving around and warning civilians over loud speakers in Arabic that U.S. soldiers do have the right to defend themselves against anyone who makes aggressive or threatening moves, these civilians have disappeared from the area.

QUESTION: Have you seen any defectors, any Iraqis surrendering?

SYNOVITZ: More than 200 Iraqis had surrendered to U.S. forces after the battle, after they had been bombed heavily. They were thoroughly defeated before they began to surrender in this way. Five regular army officers from the ranks between lieutenant colonel, colonel, major were also among the prisoners of war who surrendered, and also a [three-star] general from the Iraqi Air Force."

QUESTION: Have any chemical or biological weapons been discovered?

SYNOVITZ: The Pentagon had accused Iraq of using the base to store chemical weapons before the 1991 Gulf War. Even since the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1441, the UN inspectors who had been back in Iraq before the hostilities started had never visited that particular facility. When the U.S. troops arrived earlier today, they discovered a massive network of underground bunkers and tunnels. So specialists from the United States are expected to check the facilities in the future, further than the U.S. regular soldiers can do at this time. However, it should be noted that the Iraqi military officers who surrendered today all say that no chemical weapons have been stored there recently.

QUESTION: What else did the Iraqi military officers say about the country's weapons programs?

SYNOVITZ: They say that only senior military commanders in Baghdad have any knowledge about Iraq's alleged nuclear-, chemical-, or biological-warfare programs.