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NEAR NAJAF, Iraq (AP) -- The alert crackled over the radio at midmorning Sunday: An armored column of more than 30 Iraqi vehicles was coming, and a company of the 3rd Infantry Division was ordered forward to dig in behind irrigation levees.
Peering into the distance, the soldiers could barely make out the Iraqi vehicles. They seemed little more than blips on the horizon.
Then the U.S. Air Force arrived. Slow-flying A-10 Thunderbolt attack planes swooped down and began picking off the Iraqi vehicles one by one. Dots erupted in flashes of light, followed moments later by the muffled sound of explosions.
High-flying B-52s came next, dropping bombs on Iraqi infantry that had been moving behind the armored vehicles.
There was no immediate reckoning of casualties inflicted. The men of A Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry A Company's men kept to their Bradley fighting vehicles and awaited orders for their next mission.
The short, deadly fight came after a head-long rush by the 3rd Division's 2nd Brigade that put American troops within sight of Najaf, a Muslim holy city in farming country less than a day's drive from Baghdad.
Moving night and day since entering Iraq, more than 70 tanks and 60 armored troop carriers raced 700 miles across rough desert in a bold flanking movement.
The 2nd Brigade, nicknamed the Spartans, covered the last 228 miles in less than 40 hours and took up fighting positions about 100 miles from the Iraqi capital.
In this determined off-road march, the brigade's fighting vehicles covered more distance than during the entire 100 hours of ground fighting in the 1991 Gulf War.
Late Saturday, the brigade encountered dozens of Iraqi vehicles armed with machine guns and fought with them until dawn Sunday, destroying 15 vehicles, killing at least 100 Iraqi soldiers and capturing 20. The Iraqis were believed to be members of the ruling Baath party militia, loyal to one of Saddam Hussein's sons.
The commander of the 2nd Brigade, Col. David Perkins, compared its advance to another massive military undertaking -- that of a Carthaginian general who surprised the Romans in 218 B.C.
"I'm using the analogy of Hannibal taking elephants over the Alps," Perkins said. "But instead of the Alps, there are big wadis (gulches) out there and the elephants are the tanks."
Perkins split the brigade in two parts: "Team Heavy Metal," which included the armored fighting vehicles, and "Rock 'n Roll," consisting of all the wheeled support vehicles.
Advancing in a six-mile wide column, speeding at 40 mph and trailing plumes of sand, the tanks, trucks and troop carriers wove cross-country through the remote desert, skirting cities, villages and highways to avoid detection.
The only people they encountered were Bedouin tribesmen, herding sheep, goats and camels, who stopped and stared as the armored wave passed.
Inside each Bradley fighting vehicle, six infantrymen sat closely together, their chemical protection gear soaked in sweat as they bounced across the desert for five hours at a stretch, stopping only to refuel.
Perkins said the goal was to send a message to Saddam that the U.S. military can move fast and resistance is futile.
"There is a psychological component. If the president (Bush) can say, 'Look at your window, there is a tank brigade outside,' that can hasten the fall of the regime," he said.
Kiowa observation helicopters and long-range ground patrols spread out ahead of the huge convoy to watch for Iraqi troops.
As night fell Saturday, men believed to be Baath party militiamen began chasing the patrols, causing the brigade to stop about 20 miles short of its destination. While one unit provided supporting fire, another advanced to attack the Iraqi troops.
"We've got a ... firefight, OK Corral out here," Lt. Col. Philip DeCamp told his company commanders.
The battalion moved forward and captured ground near Najaf with little resistance early Sunday. Najaf is on the western bank of the Euphrates River, along one of the main highways leading to Baghdad.
Mosques in Najaf and Karbala are the most sacred sites to Shiite Muslims after those in Saudi Arabia.
Imam Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of Islam's Prophet Muhammad, is buried in Najaf. Shiites aspire to bury their dead in its cemetery, which stretches for miles and is the largest in the Muslim world.
Also Sunday, coalition forces fought with Iraqi troops in Umm Qasr, an important port in southern Iraq. Its modern docks, adorned with huge portraits of Saddam, were secured Saturday, the U.S. Central Command said. But coalition troops were trying to root out "pockets of resistance," said Capt. Al Lockwood, spokesman for British forces.
"In some areas the forces give up easily, or retreat, or surrender, and in other places, diehards -- people that want to fight to the death -- carry on fighting," said another British spokesman, Lt. Col. Ronnie McCourt. "Just because you've been through an area once, doesn't mean to say that you've complete confidence that it won't spring up again."
Umm Qasr, Iraq's only deepwater port, is vital as a conduit for shipments of humanitarian aid to Iraqis.
Iraqi officials in Baghdad called the resistance in Umm Qasr "heroic," and said images of the fighting, broadcast around the world, proved the coalition was not in control of the city.
Other coalition troops were "on the outskirts of Basra," the second-largest city in Iraq, but had not yet secured it, Lockwood said.
Shelling could be heard from Basra on Sunday, and thousands of U.S. Marines were trekking north toward the city along Highway 80, which was known as the "highway of death" during the 1991 Gulf War.
Iraqi officials said allied airstrikes on Saturday killed 77 civilians in Basra and injured more than 500 other Iraqis in four cities.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)