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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- After Six Days Of Fighting, Scenes Of Devastation In Karbala

RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz is embedded with the tactical-operations center of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team in the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division. The division has been engaged in heavy fighting for nearly a week around the Iraqi city of Karbala, some 80 kilometers south of Baghdad. He reports that U.S. troops are advancing north today following an afternoon firefight that broke through Iraqi defense lines.

Near Karbala, Iraq; 2 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. troops have broken through the Iraqi defenses around Karbala and are advancing further north toward Baghdad today.

This afternoon, U.S. armor units were engaged in mortar and gunfire battles against Iraqi Republican Guards along a series of canals in an area of palm groves.

As columns of U.S. tanks and Bradley troop carriers pushed past the canals in Karbala earlier today, the devastating effects of six days of air and artillery strikes became apparent to U.S. troops and the reporters who are traveling with them.

The burned wreckage of Iraqi military trucks lined the highways on the outskirts of Karbala, the bodies of dead Iraqi soldiers visible inside. Broken AK-47 assault rifles and the bent tubes of rocket-propelled grenade launchers were strewn about the roadside, some crushed beneath the tracks of the U.S. armor. Black scorch marks and holes in the ground showed where U.S. artillery shells and missiles had torn up Iraqi defenses during the past week.

Across the street from a military barracks that was shattered by U.S. air strikes, the walled compound of a mosque stood intact, with the exception of its front gate, which had collapsed from a barrage apparently fired at built-up earthen fortifications and hidden positions for Iraqi soldiers nearby.

Tire marks on the side of the road testified to the moment of panic that the Iraqi drivers went through while trying to escape from the U.S. salvos.

As the U.S. advance moved farther forward, battles against the Iraqis started to focus on tiny bridges across a series of canals used to irrigate the farmland in the area. At several bridges, the positions of Iraqi mortars could be seen surrounded by earth fortifications topped with sandbags.

Our correspondent reported seeing one U.S. armor vehicle disabled when a mortar round exploded near its front right wheel, breaking the track that pulls the tank along. The smoldering hull of an Iraqi police van, crashed into a mud-brick wall, could also be seen, its red lights thrown 50 meters down the road. The charred bodies of two dead Iraqi officers lay nearby.

Close to this scene, a dozen Iraqi women and children huddled beside a makeshift tent as the U.S. armor raised clouds of dust in its wake.