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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- U.S. Troops Advance On Karbala

RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz is embedded with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division. As he reported yesterday, combat teams from the division have been advancing on Karbala, where units of the Iraq's elite Republican Guards are positioned.

Near Karbala, Iraq; 30 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division has advanced farther north in Iraq today, moving combat teams to positions around the outskirts of the city of Karbala. The advance follows two days of intensive air strikes against armored units of Iraq's Republican Guards that have been moved to Karbala from Baghdad during the past week.

Fighting today marks the first time U.S. ground forces west of the Euphrates River have engaged troops from Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guards. Karbala is about 75 kilometers southwest of Baghdad. It is the site of important religious shrines for the Shi'ite Muslims around the world, and it was the home of thousands of Iraqi Shi'ites who were forced to flee their country after a failed uprising against Hussein's Ba'ath Party in 1991.

The capture of Karbala by U.S. forces would allow heavy U.S. artillery to be positioned within 10 kilometers of the Republican Guards' defensive ring around Baghdad, close enough for U.S. howitzers to fire on those defenses for Baghdad.

U.S. air strikes and attacks by ground-launched missiles are continuing today at targets around Karbala. U.S. warplanes and Apache helicopters have focused much of their attention on Iraqi tanks and armored troop carriers positioned in the so-called Karbala Gap during the last two days, just west of Karbala.

The Karbala Gap is a narrow strip of desert between the city and a large lake called Lake Razazah.

Today's advance by U.S. forces was launched at dawn from positions in the desert north of Najaf. U.S. tanks and troop carriers quickly overran Iraqi positions in a series of rock quarries south of Karbala. The burned hulks of Iraqi tanks and trucks testified to the effectiveness of the U.S. artillery barrage that was launched in the predawn hours after a U.S. scout patrol was targeted in an ambush there overnight.

The first significant resistance seen against today's advance came when U.S. combat teams advanced to a line of concrete bunkers and other fortifications that were flying black flags. U.S. infantrymen dismounted from Bradley troop carriers and cleared those fortifications without any reported casualties. About 50 Iraqi soldiers were taken as prisoners of war in that operation.

Close air support from U.S. A-10 antitank planes and an F-15 fighter jet was called in against Iraqi tanks today as the combat teams approached the outskirts of Karbala. Two Soviet-built T-55 Iraqi tanks were seen trying to flee to the northeast.

While U.S. combat troops are pushing farther north, thousands of U.S. reinforcements also have been force marching forward from Kuwait in an attempt to intensify the U.S. advance on Baghdad and to reinforce the U.S. supply lines that run past the cities of Nasiriyah, Samawah, and Najaf.

There have been some counterattacks by small groups of Iraqi commandos against those rearguard positions, including a suicide car bombing yesterday by an Iraqi lieutenant near Najaf that killed four U.S. soldiers.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has honored that Iraqi officer posthumously, and officials have threatened to launch more suicide bomb attacks against U.S. forces in the near future.

Meanwhile, U.S. paratroopers who seized an airfield north of Baghdad earlier this week reportedly are receiving equipment and additional troop reinforcements from the air. Those deployments appear to be aimed at opening a northern front against the Republican Guards' defensive ring around the Iraqi capital.