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Iraq: U.S. Troops Outside Samawah Face Fedayeen Commandos, Severe Weather

RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz is embedded with the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division, a faction of which is currently outside the Iraqi city of Samawah, some 240 kilometers south of Baghdad.

Samawah, Iraq; 25 March 2003 (RFE/RL) - U.S. forces are advancing into the urban areas of Samawah, Iraq, today in an attempt to uproot a stronghold of Saddam's Fedayeen commandos and armed members of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party.

The ground assault on the city is taking place in a severe dust storm, with visibility now limited to no more than 10 meters.

Saddam's Fedayeen is a group of special-forces paramilitaries controlled by Saddam Hussein's son, Uday Hussein. These troops, together with armed Ba'ath Party loyalists from Baghdad, are thought by U.S. military intelligence to comprise a force of some 1,500.

In the past, Saddam's Fedayeen commandos have been used by Saddam Hussein's regime to brutally put down uprisings by the predominately Shi'ite population in Samawah.

U.S. Army officials near the city told RFE/RL today they want to set conditions that will encourage Samawah residents to rise up against Saddam's regime. But so far, U.S. military officials believe that civilians have been wary about launching an uprising while there is still a large number of Saddam's Fedayeen commandos in the city.

The U.S. advance so far has not penetrated the city center, where Iraqi prisoners of war have told U.S. military interrogators that Saddam's Fedayeen command centers have been set up inside school buildings within the city. Under U.S. military rules of engagement, schools, mosques and hospitals are considered "safe zones" unless Iraqi troops or weapons are inside them or nearby.

Today's extreme weather conditions, with winds of 50 kilometers per hour, are raising dust clouds that blot out the midday sun. This is hampering some U.S. military communications -- making close air support from Apache helicopters and attack planes impossible, and limiting the ability of heavy artillery to be called in against Iraqi positions by the advancing U.S. troops.

RFE/RL's correspondent at Samawah reports there has been mortar fire against U.S. troops by the Iraqi paramilitaries who are able to approach American positions undetected because of the dust storm. Overnight, when weather conditions were still clear, U.S. howitzers launched a series of massive artillery barrages against Iraqi troop positions in and around the city.

Samawah is on the west side of the Euphrates River. It lies along a strategic transport corridor that U.S. forces secured during the weekend and have been using since late on 22 March to push combat troops and their logistical support toward Baghdad. Elements of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division are now positioned on the outskirts of the city of Karbala, some 80 kilometers south of Baghdad.