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Iraq: Sporadic Fighting Continues As First Food Aid Arrives

Washington, 27 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. and British forces have been engaged in continued sporadic battles in central and southern Iraq as the first significant shipment of humanitarian aid began to reach the country.

In central Iraq, America forces have been meeting occasional Iraqi resistance, but the firefights have been limited because of a second straight day of sandstorms. Some reports say the resistance is coming from Saddam Hussein's irregulars, called Fedayeen, who are transported to the area in civilian vehicles.

U.S. defense officials are reported to be surprised at the effectiveness of the Fedayeen. They are quoted as saying U.S. Army and Marine generals are changing their tactics by now trying to defeat these forces rather than merely bypass them on the march north to Baghdad.

Closer to the capital, ground forces have remained stalled by sandstorms, and many air strikes against Iraqi positions had to be postponed for a second consecutive day. Their targets are the defensive positions of Hussein's elite Republican Guard, which are arrayed around Baghdad.

Meanwhile, the United States sent about 1,000 paratroops to northern Iraq in a continuing effort to strengthen the coalition's northern front against Baghdad. U.S. forces have been working with Kurdish fighters in the region.

In southern Iraq, British troops still have not been able to enter the country's second-largest city, Basra. Yesterday, allied warplanes attacked a convoy of Iraqi military vehicles moving out of the city. One report said the vehicles included tanks and other armored vehicles.

Britain's defense secretary, Geoffrey Hoon, said his government is reluctant to engage in street warfare in Basra, a city of 1.3 million people because of the threat to the civilian population. But in an interview (with the British Broadcasting Corporation), Hoon said British troops would do so if that became the only way to take the city.

The military action that got the most attention yesterday, however, was an explosion in a market area of Baghdad known as the Sha'ab District that killed at least 14 civilians. Allied air strikes on the capital were blamed, despite the insistence of U.S. and British officials that bombardment of Baghdad was carefully planned to avoid civilian casualties.

Kofi Annan, the secretary-general of the United Nations, spoke out on the matter in New York, although he did not explicitly blame coalition forces.

"I've just heard the reports that a missile struck a market in Baghdad and I would want to remind all belligerents that they should respect international humanitarian law and take all necessary steps to protect civilians."

Annan balanced his comment by urging both sides to adhere to the Geneva Conventions on warfare. He said prisoners of war should not be made what he called "objects of public exhibition." Iraq has been accused of violating the conventions by televising interviews with captured American soldiers.

The Pentagon said the deaths were under investigation. But, Major General Stanley McChrystal, vice-director of operations for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the explosion was not necessarily caused by an American missile.

"Something landed in the Sha'ab District, but we don't know for a fact whether it was U.S. or Iraqi and we can't make any assumption on either at this point. We do know that we did not target anything in the vicinity of the Sha'ab District."

McChrystal said it was just as likely that the deaths were caused by Iraqi antiaircraft ammunition that had failed to hit its airborne target.

And Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke, speaking at the same news briefing, said Hussein himself is ultimately responsible for the deaths because he positions military targets close to civilian areas.

Meanwhile, trucks from Kuwait have begun moving to Umm Qasr carrying tons of food and water. But the sandstorms affected this effort, too. One official of the Humanitarian Operations Center -- run jointly by the United States and Kuwait -- said he had hoped to send 30 trucks to Iraq yesterday. Sandstorms, however, limited the number to seven.

In another development, coalition military leaders say Iraqi forces are continuing to violate the laws of war by dressing as civilians and using members of the general population as human shields. In one case, they say, Iraqis turned a hospital into what was described as a "fortress."

At yesterday's Pentagon briefing in Washington, Clarke described U.S. Marines taking over a hospital in Nasiriyah on 24 March. Inside, she said, they found 170 Iraqi soldiers, scores of weapons with ammunition, and 3,000 suits and masks designed to protect from chemical weapons. Clarke said the Iraqi troops even had weapons to counter nerve gas.

"The Iraqi military even used a hospital as a fortress, firing on [U.S.] Marines. During time of war, a hospital is always considered to be a safe place for the sick and the wounded. The building was clearly marked as a hospital by a flag with a red crescent designed to protect it from attack."

Another U.S. military spokesman, Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, told reporters at the allied command center in Doha, the capital of the Gulf nation of Qatar, that such behavior is not consistent with accepted military practice.

"The practices that have been conducted by these [Iraqi] paramilitaries and by these others who are out there, sometimes in uniform, sometimes not in uniform, are more akin to the behaviors of global terrorists than they are to a nation."

U.S. President George W. Bush sought to rally American military men and women at the end of the first week of war. The campaign began with virtually no resistance from Iraq. But since 23 March, U.S. and British forces frequently have been fighting off enemy attacks.

Bush addressed troops at McDill Air Force Base in Florida. McDill is the base of the U.S. Defense Department's Central Command, which looks after America's military interests in an area stretching from northeastern Africa, through the Middle East, and into Central Asia. It is the Central Command that is in charge of the war in Iraq.

The president reminded the troops that the war will be difficult and that he could not predict when it might end. But he said he is certain that it will end in the defeat of Hussein's rule and freedom for the Iraqi people, whom he described as "long-suffering."

Bush also said the allied effort will be greatly enhanced by help from several former communist nations of Europe, who are providing their expertise in dealing with any attacks involving chemical and biological weapons.

"Czech, Slovak, Polish, and Romanian forces, soon to be joined by Ukrainian and Bulgarian forces, are forward-deployed in the region, prepared to respond in the event of an attack of weapons of mass destruction anywhere in the region."

After the address, Bush flew to Camp David, the presidential retreat in the mountains outside Washington, to meet with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. They plan to discuss the war, postwar Iraq, and attending to any diplomatic rifts with allies like France that preceded the war.