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U.S. Warplanes Back in the Air

U.S. Warplanes Back in the Air

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NEAR KARBALA, Iraq (AP) -- The ferocious sandstorm that halted the U.S. drive on Baghdad lifted Thursday and coalition warplanes were back in the sky in force, blasting Iraqi armor that probed American lines.

Troops awoke to bright sunshine after a night when temperatures dipped into the 30s and resumed their drive toward the Iraqi capital. The weather front that had created one of the biggest sandstorms in recent memory blew east into Iran.

The bad weather, with near zero visibility, had stalled the coalition drive 50 miles south of the Iraqi capital.

Small groups of Iraqi armored personnel carriers -- ranging from three to six vehicles -- tested U.S. defenses near Karbala. When the Iraqis closed within 10 miles, they were blasted by coalition warplanes that again ranged the skies.

The soldiers cheered as they watched the planes destroy two APCs on the horizon to the north. Similar explosions from bombing runs farther north could be heard but not seen.

A squad of tanks was sent to check results of the strike and found a damaged pipeline spilling an estimated 1,000 gallons of fuel each second. Army engineers worked to stanch the flow.

In Nasiriyah, Marines were reported to have fought house-to-house battles. 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.

An Iraqi military spokesman claimed Thursday that in Nasiriyah, "a big number of enemy troops were killed." Gen. Hazem al-Rawi also denied what he called American "claims" of heavy Iraqi casualties.

"I confirm to you that battles are still going on and on the eighth day I can confirm that the enemy was not able to achieve the minimum of its objectives," he said.

"We are now on our land and in our cities and we hope to fight them in the cities, but American, British and Zionist media indicate and try to tell others that they have captured many cities," he said, denying that coalition forces have captured any Iraqi city.

Associated Press Correspondent Denis Gray reported the first American aircraft, a C-130 cargo plane, landed Thursday at Tallil airbase, just outside Nasariyah. Tallil is expected to be a major resupply base for American forces.

Tallil is the second largest airport in Iraq after Saddam International Airport at Baghdad. It was covered by the U.S.-British enforced no-fly zones and has not been used since the 1991 Gulf War. The no-fly zones were set up to protect Iraq's majority Shiite Muslims in the south of the country and the Kurds in the north.

Several American units already are operating at Tallil, where troops put up a sign saying "Bush International Airport."

North of Najaf, southeast of the deepest advance to around Karbala, Lt. Col. B.P. McCoy, commanding officer of Marine 3rd Battery, 4th Regiment said this regiment had fought Wednesday but had not met significant Iraqi resistance Thursday.

AP correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer reported that McCoy said his troops were still moving toward Baghdad and expect to meet regular Iraqi military. The Marines have been running into people taking potshots at them, but had not encountered concentrations of Republican Guards. The troops had slowed considerably, and traveled only 6 miles on Wednesday as they searched roadsides to clear guerrilla attackers.

"Our job now is killing," McCoy said, referring to Iraqi resistance.

The British reported crushing an attempted armored column breakout in Basra, saying 14 Iraqi tanks were destroyed trying to leave Iraq's second largest city Thursday morning. British officials said the attack on the tank column represented one of the largest losses suffered by Iraqi armor in a single engagement.

Group Capt. Al Lockwood said British Army tanks of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards engaged the tanks in a swift battle and destroyed all of them.

Iraqi forces have made at least three attempts to break out of Basra since Tuesday, according to British military officials. Lockwood said the latest column came out of the city overnight.

He said the columns were manned by Iraqi soldiers being forced to fight by Saddam Hussein's loyalists holding Basra. Lockwood said Baath party militia were "threatening families of Iraqi soldiers to force them to drive these military vehicles out of Basra."

The Marines were covered with powdery sand after the storm. AP Correspondent Ravi Nessman said many Marines had been sleeping on vehicle seats for four nights running and emerged into the clear morning stiff and unrested. They tried cleaning themselves with wet wipes and shaved in the cold morning air.

He was not allowed to give their exact location.

Many Marines were frustrated by the slow movement of their convoy because of the intense storm. Wednesday afternoon, mortars fell on both sides of the road in the distance. The troops also came under small arms fire from a cluster of buildings and a silo about 150 yards off the road.

Marines responded with almost every weapon in their arsenal, firing .50 caliber machine guns mounted on humvees, using M16s and a few even shooting off 9 mm pistols. The Marines launched two wire-guided TOW missiles, missing with the first one. The second slammed into the buildings. Someone yelled "good shot!"

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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