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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- 3rd Infantry Battles Republican Guard Forces At Euphrates Bridge

RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz is embedded with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division. He filed this report this morning from the outskirts of the central Iraqi town of Hindiyah, near Karbala.

Hindiyah, Iraq; 31 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division advanced to positions about 50 kilometers southwest of Baghdad today, battling troops from Iraq's Republican Guard at a bridge across the Euphrates River in the town of Hindiyah.

The rapid U.S. advance appeared to take Iraqi forces by surprise, with U.S. engineers reaching the bridge and cutting wires attached to explosives before the structure could be demolished by the Iraqis.

U.S. tanks and troop carriers started to move across the bridge from the west side shortly after dawn today but halted their advance when infantry from the Nebuchadneezer Division of the Republican Guards reinforced the Iraqi positions on the other side of the river.

Soldiers in the Iraqi regular army then blocked the east side of the bridge by driving cars straight at U.S. tanks that were still on the structure.

After a weekend suicide car bombing that killed four U.S. soldiers near Najaf, further to the south, U.S. troops say they are no longer hesitating when Iraqi civilian vehicles approach them rapidly.

The efforts of the Iraqi soldiers in these cars were, in effect, suicide missions. The U.S. Abrams tanks continued to fire at each approaching car until the hulks of about a dozen vehicles created a grisly roadblock on the east side of the bridge.

U.S. soldiers also report that women and children were walking in front of Iraqi weaponry as it was being repositioned on the east side of the Euphrates.

Lieutenant Colonel Eric Wesley, the executive officer of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, told RFE/RL today that it appears women and children were purposely being used as human shields to allow Iraqi military trucks to reposition on the east side of the bridge. U.S. military intelligence is trying to get photographic evidence of that incident to support the claim.

However, U.S. officials say it is possible that the civilians could have been curious onlookers. That's because shrapnel from an Iraqi mortar attack damaged the speakers of a U.S. vehicle that normally would broadcast warnings in Arabic telling civilians to stay out of the combat zone.

Wesley told RFE/RL that he is satisfied with the outcome of this morning's battle. He said the purpose of the mission was to destroy Republican Guard forces in and around Hindiyah and that that goal, to a large extent, had been accomplished.

Wesley said an official battle-damage assessment of Iraqi losses has not yet been compiled. But initial intelligence reports suggest that at least 100 soldiers from the Republican Guard had been killed and dozens of vehicles destroyed. One U.S. engineer was shot in the leg in the battle.

Wesley also said that at least 18 members of Iraq's Republican Guard had been captured, including a lieutenant colonel from the Nebuchadneezer Division.

U.S. troops were continuing to hold strategic positions in and around Hindiyah in the early afternoon today. U.S. artillery and air strikes were also being called in against Iraqi reinforcements moving toward Hindiyah from the east and from the south.

Hindiyah is about 20 kilometers east of Karbala, a town to the southwest of Baghdad where U.S. forces have been focusing intensive air, missile, and artillery strikes during the past three days.

The current U.S. positions in Hindiyah bring U.S. artillery to within range of the Republican Guard tanks deployed to the southwest of Baghdad as part of a defensive ring around the Iraqi capital.