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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- Soldiers From 3rd Infantry Locked In Combat With Saddam Fedayeen

Near As-Samawah, Southern Iraq; 24 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz is traveling with the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division in southern Iraq. Synovitz reports that U.S. warplanes and Apache Longbow attack helicopters have been launching assaults against Iraqi military positions in and around the town of As-Samawah, between Najaf and Nasiriyah, about 240 kilometers south of Baghdad.

In this "Desert Dispatch," Synovitz gives an update on the battle.

Question: Can you give us an overview of the fighting?

Synovitz: The U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division has been locked in combat in southern Iraq since yesterday afternoon with the Saddam Fedayeen, a highly trained paramilitary force controlled by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's son Uday Hussein. The battle has been taking place in and around the city of As-Samawah, which is on the west side of the Euphrates River and lies on the main road linking Baghdad with the southern port city of Basra.

U.S. Lieutenant-Colonel John Charlton told RFE/RL that U.S. warplanes yesterday bombed the headquarters of the Ba'ath Party in As-Samawah. The building was also being used by Saddam Fedayeen as a command-and-control center. An Iraqi captain captured after that air strike told U.S. military interrogators today that the command structure of the paramilitary force has since been spread out at several schools within the city. Schools, hospitals, and mosques are considered safety zones under the U.S. military's rules of engagement in Iraq unless Iraqi troops or weapons are positioned inside or nearby.

Lieutenant Colonel Charlton said the U.S. Army's advance toward Baghdad is continuing today but that there have been some mission changes as troops met unexpected resistance at As-Samawah. Iraqi resistance is thought to consist of a combined force of some 1,500 members of Saddam Fedayeen and the Ba'ath Party.

Question: You have reported that Iraqi troops carried out two attacks overnight that critically injured two U.S. soldiers. Can you elaborate?

Synovitz: One was a sniper attack, and the other was a direct hit by a mortar shell on an armored ambulance that threw a nearby U.S. sergeant into the air for a distance of some 15 meters. Both [injured soldiers] were taken from the battlefield by Blackhawk helicopters.

Question: What is the situation on the ground so far today?

Synovitz: Fighting today began with a U.S. mortar attack at dawn against an outpost that killed five paramilitaries from the Saddam Fedayeen. The Iraqi troops have been counterattacking today with mortars and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. But soon after they began to fire, they are quickly being targeted by U.S. mortars and howitzer artillery [a howitzer is a type of cannon with a steep angle of fire].

Question: What kind of resistance have U.S. troops been encountering?

Synovitz: Although the U.S. forces have superior weaponry and outnumber their Iraqi opponents, the Iraqi resistance has been using thousands of earthen mounds on the outskirts of As-Samawah for cover. Iraqi paramilitary have also been dressing in civilian clothing to prevent attacks by U.S. troops who have been under orders of engagement to only shoot Iraqis who are bearing weapons.

Our correspondent reported that an order was given today within the 3rd Infantry Division to capture any Iraqi in civilian clothing with a cellular telephone who is seen observing U.S. troop movements. He reported that U.S. troops have been given permission to fire on Iraqis with cell phones if they attempt to run away.

Synovitz: The battle at As-Samawah comes after a 250-kilometer advance into southern Iraq by the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division.