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(AP) The biggest bombs dropped on Baghdad so far -- two 4,700-pound "bunker busters" -- struck a communications tower Friday in an intense U.S. bombardment. Four U.S. Marines were missing after fierce fighting in Nasiriyah.
U.S. and Iraqi forces traded tank and artillery fire throughout the day in Nasiriyah, a strategic southern city that has been the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the war. Several buildings, including a power plant, were ablaze.
Nasiriyah, a city of about 500,000 on the Euphrates River near a junction of roads that lead from Kuwait to Baghdad. Helicopters flying over the area were drawing almost continuous small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.
The report of the four missing Marines was in addition to eight Marines that the Pentagon said Thursday haven't been seen since a battle near Nasiriyah on Sunday.
In the south, British officers said Iraqi fighters defending the besieged city of Basra fired on hundreds of civilians trying to flee.
The British have encircled Basra and said their troops were trying to rescue and aid civilians wounded by the mortar and machine-gun fire from paramilitaries loyal to Saddam Hussein.
About 1,000 people made it out safely, fleeing to the west of Basra, and British forces gave them food, water and medical attention, said Lt. Cmdr. Emma Thomas, a British spokeswoman in the Persian Gulf. She said the firing started when a second group of about the same size tried to flee.
"Here perhaps are the first pieces of evidence of Iraqi people trying to break free ... and clearly the militia don't want that," said Col. Chris Vernon, a British spokesman.
British officers said soldiers from the 1st Black Watch battalion, in Warrior armored fighting vehicles, were trying to wedge themselves between the militia fire and the targeted civilians.
At nearby Umm Qasr, the first ship arrived at the allied-controlled port with relief supplies for Iraqi civilians. The Sir Galahad, a British ship, carried 255 tons of water, rice, cooking oil, sugar, beans and powdered milk, as well as medical supplies, blankets and emergency ration packs.
Near the south-central city of Diwaniyah, one Marine was killed and another injured in fighting with Iraqi irregulars at a cement plant in what one Marine officer, Lt. Col. B.P. McCoy, described as "blue-collar warfare." Two other Marines were killed when a vehicle ran them over while they slept.
A showdown in central Iraq over Baghdad was clearly drawing closer. With a new front opened by paratroopers in the north, U.S. forces are poised to move on the capital from multiple directions.
Wary of engaging the better-armed allies in open desert warfare, Saddam's government has been goading them to send ground troops into the city.
"The enemy must come inside Baghdad, and that will be its grave," said Defense Minister Sultan Hasidim Ahem. "We feel that this war must be prolonged so the enemy pays a high price."
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld suggested Thursday that American troops might lay siege to Baghdad rather than invade, in hopes its citizens would rebel against the government. Rumsfeld drew comparisons with Basra, where British troops have delayed an assault in hopes Iraqi defenders give up or are toppled by anti-Saddam civilians.
The Army's senior ground commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace of V Corps, told The New York Times and The Washington Post on Thursday that unexpected tactics by Iraqi fighters and stretched supply lines were slowing down the campaign. "The enemy we're fighting is different from the one we'd war-gamed against," the papers quoted Wallace as saying during a visit to the 101st Airborne Division headquarters in central Iraq.
Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, at a briefing at U.S. Central Command in Qatar, insisted U.S. war planners had not underestimated Iraqi fighting capabilities, but said acknowledged that battlefield commanders may be seeing a "more precise" reality of resistance than headquarters. He accused the Iraqis of using "terrorist death squads" who changed in and out of civilian clothes.
Brooks also said U.S. and British troops were expanding TV and radio broadcasts in Iraq, including Baghdad, aimed at reassuring civilians and encouraging soldiers to capitulate.
In Baghdad, smoke drifted across the city -- from fires started by authorities to conceal targets as well as from sites struck overnight in one of the heaviest allied air assaults of the war.
U.S. officials said bombs and Tomahawk missiles struck several communications and command-and-control facilities in the city, including the tower hit by two "bunker-busters" dropped from a B-2 bomber. One of Baghdad's main telephone exchanges -- a seven-story building -- was hit and gutted, but phones were working Friday in many parts of the city.
Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al Sahhaf said 75 civilians had been killed and 290 wounded in U.S. and British bombardments overnight, including seven deaths in Baghdad. He also said Iraqi forces destroyed or damaged several allied vehicles and killed four soldiers in an attack on a convoy near Najaf, less than 100 miles south of Baghdad.
Sahhaf rejected allied contentions that Iraq planned to use chemical weapons -- speculation that arose after advancing forces found chemical weapons protective suits and gas masks left behind by retreating soldiers. Sahhaf said having such equipment is standard for any army.
A U.S. official involved in military planning and intelligence said Iraqi troops also have been seen between U.S. and Iraqi lines wearing full chemical protection suits and unloading 50-gallon drums from trucks. U.S. intelligence doesn't know what was in the drums, but fear it could be chemicals.
Iraqi state TV broadcast a sermon by cleric Abdel-Ghafour Al-Quisi; a Kalashnikov rifle was seen resting against the pulpit. "May God install terror in the hearts of our enemies," he said.
Nine days into the war, Pentagon officials said close to 90,000 U.S. troops were in Iraq, with 100,000 to 120,000 more on the way. Some will be deployed in northern Iraq, joining 1,000 airborne troops who parachuted in Wednesday night to secure an airfield.
A paramount U.S. objective in the north is to seize the valuable oil fields near the city of Kirkuk, about 80 miles from the airdrop site.
Russian President Vladimir Putin described the war Friday as a threat to global stability and the most serious crisis since the end of the Cold War. He called for an end to the fighting, and resumption of U.N. efforts to forge a political settlement.
At the United Nations, the Security Council unanimously approved a resolution to restart a U.N. humanitarian food program for Iraq once the war winds down. The U.N. program, which uses Iraq's oil revenues for medical supplies and food, had been feeding 60 percent of Iraq's 22 million people.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)