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CENTRAL IRAQ (AP) -- Vicious sandstorms that blunted U.S. airpower for days began to abate early Thursday as U.S. forces headed north toward Baghdad, warned of a possible confrontation with a huge Iraqi convoy moving south: Saddam Hussein's best-trained, best-equipped and most tenacious fighters, the Republican Guard.
Vast columns of U.S. military vehicles -- one 10 miles long -- rolled along a six-lane highway toward the Iraqi capital under skies clearing of the thick dust and sand that had made flying and often driving nearly impossible. A weather shift means a change in fortunes for allied forces likely able to resume bombing missions.
On Wednesday, a military intelligence officer with the 1st Marine Expeditionary force had warned helicopter pilots that Republican Guard units in a 1,000-vehicle convoy were headed south on Highway 7, which runs southeast of Baghdad, toward the city of al-Kut.
The Iraqi troops, analysts said, were likely taking advantage of the sandstorms to reposition their tanks in response to U.S. forces approaching the outskirts of the capital.
In the north, just before midnight Wednesday, about 1,000 U.S. paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne dropped into an airbase in the Kurdish autonomous zone, the first large ground force in the region from which war planners want to open another front against Saddam's regime.
And in the south, earlier Wednesday, coalition aircraft pounded a convoy of Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles streaming out of the besieged southern city of Basra, British military sources said. The city has been ringed by British troops trying to secure the city and deliver humanitarian aid to trapped residents.
Elsewhere on the battlefield, there were reports of skirmishes into early Thursday in Karbala, in the center of the country, where U.S. forces destroyed two tanks and four armored personnel carriers, killing an unknown number of Iraqi soldiers.
There had been major fighting Tuesday night near Najaf, just south of Karbala; U.S. troops there fought regular Iraqi forces and destroyed a number of tanks and armored personnel carriers, though it was uncertain how many.
Marines were fighting house to house in Nasiriyah, further south. A reporter for WTVD in Durham, N.C., attached to the Camp Lejeune Marines, said at least 25 Marines had been injured. He said Marines were using flares to light areas so they could see their enemy.
One military analyst, asked about the southern advance of Iraqi troops believed to be Republican Guard, called it a bold move -- one that could not have been attempted if American tank-killing A-10 Warthogs and Apache attack helicopters has been able to fly.
"It's not good news," said the analyst, retired Army Gen. John Abrams. "It means (the Iraqi) command and control is working, that electronic warfare has not impacted the command and control, and they are able to reposition in a timely way."
U.S. officials gave conflicting reports about Iraqi troop movements. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, in Qatar, said, "We've not seen any significant movements of the type of force" described. He added, though, there were "local positionings and survival positionings" of various units.
Intelligence officials offered the possibility that paramilitary fighters, so-called Fedayeen, had been moving in recent days, traveling in pickup trucks, SUVs and other civilian vehicles. An Iraqi military communique issued Wednesday reported the first battlefield action by Republican Guard troops, which it said attacked "enemy concentrations" in central Iraq, destroying six armored vehicles and killing "a great many troops."
The Republican Guard is the best that Saddam has to offer.
At the outset of the Gulf War in 1991, its five divisions had about 120 tanks each for a total of about 700 to 800 -- mostly Soviet T-72s and older T-62s.
About half of those were destroyed by allied air strikes and ground action; the remaining were cannibalized into a viable operational force, said Abrams, an armor officer who saw combat in the Vietnam and Gulf wars.
The T-72s were the best tanks built by the Soviets and the only ones that come near to matching the Americans' M1A1 Abrams tanks -- coincidentally named for the analyst's famous father, the late Gen. Creighton Abrams.
Abrams said the Iraqis could be expected to try to conceal their armor in buildings and other urban hiding places, rather than out in the open, where they would be easy prey for roaming U.S. anti-tank aircraft.
"I would be surprised if those 300 to 400 tanks were accessible from the air," he said.
Abrams also said the Iraqis learned from their unhappy experience in Desert Storm and from the war in Kosovo how to set up decoys -- old tanks and hulks loaded with fuel so as to explode when hit from the air.
"They can be masters of deception," he said.
In Basra, British military sources estimated the fleeing Iraqi column at about 120 vehicles. Again, it appeared the Iraqis had been using the sandstorm that blanketed the region -- this time to sneak out.
British forces have ringed Basra for several days, exchanging artillery fire with forces loyal to Saddam. The British say they are coming to the defense of inhabitants who rose up in the streets against Saddam on Tuesday. British reporters have described citizens rampaging through the streets; Iraq has denied any civil unrest.
Basra had been largely quiet Wednesday, after British forces "neutralized" militia fighters who had lobbed mortars at residents on Tuesday, said Lt. Col. Ronnie McCourt, a spokesman for British forces in the Gulf.
The unrest came as the British tried to gain control of Basra and relieve the city's trapped civilian population of 1.3 million, which was fast running out of food and was in danger of outbreaks of cholera and diarrhea from contaminated water.
"The bunch of desperadoes who've lived above the law rule the roost in this dictatorship, this regime that Saddam Hussein has been running," McCourt said.
The city's electricity was knocked out Friday during U.S.-British bombing. That in turn shut down Basra's water pumping and treatment plants. The U.N. Children's Fund estimated up to 100,000 Basra children under age 5 were at immediate risk of severe disease.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)