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(AP) American ground forces backed by Cobra helicopter gunships fought for control of a strategic city on the road to Baghdad on Friday and four Marines were reported missing. British officials accused Iraqis of firing on civilians fleeing Basra.
The combat flared as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld sternly warned the Syrian government to cut off alleged shipments of night vision goggles and other military equipment to Iraq. "We consider such trafficking as hostile acts and will hold the Syrian government accountable," he said.
Buoyed by a second straight day of good weather, American and British warplanes renewed their bombing. Baghdad was hit with two 4,700-pound bunker-busters, and other missions were directed at wearing down Republican Guard units guarding the approach to the Iraqi capital.
Iraqis said the bombing was taking an increasing toll on civilians, claiming more than 4,000 dead and wounded. "The Americans and the British have repeated that they target government buildings -- like there aren't humans in government buildings," said Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf.
With the southern port city of Umm Qasr finally cleared of Iraqi mines, a British ship docked with several hundred thousand pounds of water, rice, lentils, chick peas and other food supplies. The Sir Galahad was escorted by patrol boats and assault helicopters to guard against attacks.
There also were fresh concerns about possible use of chemical weapons by Iraqis.
Officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Iraqi troops have been spotted between U.S. and Iraqi lines wearing full chemical outfits, hoods, gloves and boots. They were unloading 50 gallon drums off trucks. U.S. intelligence is unsure what is in the drums, but they fear it's chemicals, the sources said.
Nine days into the war, an unusual skirmish broke out -- pitting a three-star general against the Bush administration. One U.S. official with close ties to the White House said administration officials were angered by comments by Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, the senior ground commander in the conflict.
Wallace told reporters on Thursday that a longer-than-expected war seemed likely, in part because of unexpectedly tough resistance by forces loyal to Saddam Hussein.
An Nasiriyah and Basra provided two examples of that resistance, the first the site of some of the fiercest fighting of the war, the second a city of 1.3 million people encircled by British forces.
Marines and Iraqi forces exchanged tank and artillery fire in their continuing battle for An Nasiriyah, a city of about 500,000 on the Euphrates River, between the Kuwaiti border and Baghdad. Ground forces called in Cobra support helicopters in the battle, and loud explosions could be heard throughout the city.
But officials said four Marines were missing, in addition to eight others who haven't been seen since fighting in the area on Sunday.
In addition to the fighting with Iraqis, more than two dozen Marines were injured in a friendly fire incident in the battle earlier in the week. And in grim recognition of the continuing fighting, Marines have taken to calling the southern entrances to the city "Ambush Alley."
In Basra, closer to the Kuwaiti border, Iraqi forces said to be members of the paramilitary Fedayeen continued to resist British efforts to take control.
British military officials said Iraqi paramilitary forces fired mortars and machine guns on about 1,000 civilians trying to leave Basra, forcing them to return to the city. Lt. Cmdr. Emma Thomas, a British military spokeswoman, said an initial group of 1,000 made it out safely, and were given food and medical attention. She said the firing started when a second group of about the same size started fleeing.
British troops have encircled the city for days, but have been reluctant to enter for fear of becoming trapped in urban warfare.
"Here perhaps, are the first pieces of evidence of Iraqi people trying to break free from the Baath party regime and the militia," said Col. Chris Vernon, a British military spokesman.
Rumsfeld issued his warning to Syria at the Pentagon, but declined to say if he was threatening military action. "We have information that shipments of military supplies have been crossing the border from Syria into Iraq, including night-vision goggles," he said.
"These deliveries pose a direct threat to the lives of coalition forces."
In the Rumeila oil fields in the southern part of Iraq, officials said three fires were still burning at well heads. They said a team from a private American company had succeeded in extinguishing four fires, which officials say Iraqis set as they withdrew in the early hours of the American-led invasion.
Hundreds of miles to the north, a U.S. special operations commander declared Kurdish-controlled territory free of refugee problems and terrorism threats.
Lt. Col. Robert Waltemeyer met with Kurdish military and civilian leaders, and said he would report back that "the Turks will not have to go in."
The United States is eager to prevent additional Turkish troops from entering northern Iraq, fearing a conflict with the Kurds. Southern Turkey is also home to large numbers of Kurds, whose traditional homeland also includes parts of present-day Iraq, Iran and Syria.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)