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Allies Target Elite Force Near Baghdad

Allies Target Elite Force Near Baghdad

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Coalition planes targeted Republican Guard forces just south of Baghdad on Monday in perhaps the largest assault to date on Saddam Hussein's highly trained troops, U.S. officials said. Farther south, allied troops pressed toward the capital with new wariness, as Iraqi militiamen proved they were not a beaten force and sandstorms snarled the advance.

Facing a pattern of deadly ambushes and ruses, and with many of Saddam's supporters discarding their uniforms in favor of civilian clothes, coalition forces responded with tough new tactics in the south.

U.S. officials also confirmed their forces have arrived in northern Iraq, and have been operating there for about 24 hours. Coalition warplanes bombed a military barracks near the Kurdish-held town of Chamchamal, not far from the Iraqi oil center of Kirkuk.

Iraq claimed to have shot down two U.S. helicopters and taken pilots prisoner, a day after more than 20 Americans were killed or captured.

Saddam, in an appearance that seemed calculated to show he remained at the helm, sought to rally his people Monday with a televised speech. Speaking on Iraqi TV before a white backdrop, he appeared relaxed and healthy -- strikingly different from the way he looked in a speech aired Thursday, the day the air assault began.

In full military dress, he assured Iraqis "victory will be ours soon," and mentioned the defiant resistance of Iraqi forces in Umm Qasr, which U.S. and British forces have struggled to hold since Saturday. The reference seemed designed to allay any suspicion that the address had been taped earlier, or that Saddam had been wounded or killed last week.

However, the language was general enough that U.S. and British officials were not convinced. A senior U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity said U.S. intelligence had determined that Saddam's speech was recorded but that it was unclear when it was taped.

Iraqi TV later showed images of what appeared to be a downed U.S. Apache attack helicopter sitting largely undamaged in a grassy field. Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf claimed peasants had shot down two Apaches and that pilots were in custody.

U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks confirmed that one helicopter and two pilots were missing in action but he rejected the idea that farmers had brought down the copter.

Speaking at a briefing in Qatar, he said Saddam's command and control network was still working but was damaged.

Franks also accused the Iraqis of "criminal" behavior in using civilians as human shields, intentionally placing them next to military equipment and formations as a deterrent to U.S. attacks.

In Baghdad, security and police officers dug more trenches around military offices in the heart of the Iraqi capital, as smoke from fires set to conceal targets from bombing hung over the city Monday. Daytime traffic was heavy in some areas, youngsters played soccer on side streets and Iraqis walked the city despite the tension from days of bombing by coalition forces.

Fifty miles to the south, a brutal sandstorm with howling winds stalled U.S. troops near Karbala, a city holy to Iraq's majority Shiite Muslims. As the 7th Infantry Regiment pressed north, Iraqi militiamen shot mortars at a supply convoy of Humvees and cargo trucks. There were no casualties. Commanders requested air support, but the Iraqis were able to flee easily in small, civilian trucks.

Armed members of Saddam's Fedayeen, the Baath Party paramilitary organization, have increasingly been attacking coalition supply lines in this way.

Franks said U.S. forces had "intentionally bypassed enemy formations," but that the Fedayeen had been harassing the U.S. rear in southern Iraq.

With tension about such attacks mounting, Marines operating in the south took a tough approach with Iraqis they encountered Monday, forcing men from vehicles, questioning them and then slashing their tires to make sure they wouldn't harass other convoys.

A British soldier was killed in combat near Az Zubayr in southern Iraq on Monday, the first British combat death since the war began, the British Ministry of Defense said. Two other British troops were reported missing Sunday after their convoy was attacked in southern Iraq.

Coalition officials said their forces were exchanging fire Monday with Iraqis on the outskirts of Basra, Iraq's main southern city, where the allies earlier captured an airport and a key bridge. Commanders held off storming the city, hoping its Iraqi defenders would give up, but they have held firm.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned Monday of a humanitarian crisis in Basra. He called for "urgent measures" to restore the city's electricity and water supply.

In another signal that the situation remained fluid, the coalition canceled press tours of the strategic southern port of Umm Qasr and the Rumeila oil fields, which Iraqi forces set ablaze early in the ground war. Fighting in that area was fierce enough to drive civilian firefighters away.

Franks said that U.S.-led coalition forces were making "rapid and in some cases dramatic" progress in Iraq but also have met sporadic resistance.

In his address, Saddam praised his supporters for their resistance.

In one incident Sunday near An Nasiriyah, a crossing point over the Euphrates River, a group of Iraqis waved a white flag in surrender, then opened up with artillery fire. Another group appeared to welcome coalition troops, then attacked them, U.S. officials said.

Nine Marines died and a dozen U.S. soldiers were missing and presumed captured after the surprise engagements. Two British soldiers were missing after a convoy of vehicles they were traveling in was attacked in southern Iraq. Additionally, two Marines were killed in accidents, military officials said Monday.

In Iraqi television footage carried by the Arab satellite station Al-Jazeera on Sunday, five captured U.S. soldiers -- four men and a woman -- appeared frightened but resolute as they answered questions. The footage also showed what it said were four American dead in an Iraqi morgue.

Iraqi officials have offered repeated assurances that the prisoners would be treated according to the Geneva Conventions.

In the campaign against Saddam's regime, Franks said his forces captured 3,000 prisoners.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.) APTV-03-24-03 1139MST

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