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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- The View Near 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. He reports today from outside Karbala about the unit's movements and the mood of the troops.

Question: Where are you? What kind of action have you been seeing over the past days?

Synovitz: At the moment, we are deployed at a forward combat assembly area near the city of Karbala. For the last six days, I've seen incessant air strikes, missile strikes, artillery strikes on Iraqi Republican Guard positions around the city of Karbala, including to the west, as well as to the east. U.S. forces are now on the move pushing northward toward Baghdad.

Question: News reports say U.S. forces have successfully crossed the Tigris River and taken control of the main Highway 6 from Kut to Baghdad. Can you confirm this? Do you have any additional details?

Synovitz: The developments being reported on Highway 6 south of Baghdad and the seizure of a bridge across the Tigris River are not in the area where I am at the moment, so I cannot confirm that with my own eyes. However, the reports that I am hearing here on the ground would suggest that the news-wire reports that are coming out are accurate.

Question: What is the mood of the troops in the 2nd Brigade Combat Team?

Synovitz: The mood of the U.S. troops here remains high as they're moving forward. I think that civilians in the West that are reading news reports have gotten the impression that this drive toward Baghdad has been slowed down or even held up. But one thing that needs to be considered is that in the last Gulf War, air strikes had continued for five weeks before any ground war was launched, whereas in this Gulf War, the ground war was launched almost simultaneously with the air war. So what the troops are seeing on the ground, in essence, is the air war happening closer to them. It's also increased the efficiency of the air strikes against Republican Guard and other Iraqi troops because, with U.S. ground troops in visual positions to sight the Iraqi Republican Guard and the Iraqi regular army, the accuracy of the U.S. air strikes has increased dramatically.

Question: What can you tell us about the extent of the damage U.S. assaults have done to Iraqi forces in the area where you are? Are Iraqi military capacities considered significantly diminished?

Synovitz: Under the rules that I have agreed to as an embedded reporter joining U.S. forces in the field here, I'm not allowed to say exactly what the battle-damage assessments are for the Iraqi Republican Guard as a result of air strikes. However, what can be said for sure is that it has been an intense air campaign and that Iraqi damages are very, very large. This is also bolstering the confidence of the ground troops as they are pushing forward today toward Baghdad. This information is not a result of information being provided by military public-affairs officers to reporters. This is a result of the information of the U.S. military that it is giving to its own troops on battle assessments.

Question: Reports say the U.S. strikes around Karbala have been aimed primarily at the Medina Division of the Republican Guard. Can you confirm this?

Synovitz: Much of the engagement today is focusing on the Medina Division of the Republican Guard. But surprisingly, in the last few days in this area to the southwest of Baghdad, U.S. forces have also come across officers and troops from the Nebuchadnezzar Division of the Republican Guard.

Question: The U.S. Army, including the 3rd Infantry Division, has been using depleted-uranium ammunition against Iraqi troops. Have you witnessed this ammunition being used?

Synovitz: One of the most horrific images that I've seen here in the war was the results of 25-millimeter depleted-uranium ammunition fired at a Nissan pickup truck with six Iraqi regular-army soldiers that were driving it straight at a U.S. position. These Iraqi regular-army soldiers had RPGs and fired two of these rocket-propelled grenades at the U.S. positions, when a U.S. Bradley troop carrier using this depleted-uranium ammunition opened fire on it from about 30 to 35 meters away. If you can imagine what a human being looks like melting when being hit by this ammunition, there wasn't much left of these people other than the charred remains of their skeletons. And the people that took the brunt of the attack, even their skeletons had multiple fractures all over them. One Iraqi soldier who was out of the vehicle at the time about 15 meters back from the vehicle was killed just from the concussion of the blast.

Question: Finally, what can you say about where you are and what the next several days may hold for the 3rd Infantry Division?

Synovitz: I'm not allowed to describe the events that are unfolding now for reasons of military secrecy. But one thing that should be understood is that the 3rd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army has trained extensively for rapid deployment, and this is a situation where the division does appear to be doing exactly what it's been trained to do.