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IN SOUTH-CENTRAL IRAQ - Thousands of U.S. troops surrounded Najaf, a key city 100 miles south of Baghdad, and braced Sunday for an urban battle as Iraq warned that 4,000 Arabs suicide attackers had arrived in the country and were ready to die killing U.S. and British soldiers.
Near the southern city of Basra, British commandos battling paramilitary forces captured an Iraqi general — the highest-ranking Iraqi prisoner of war thus far.
In central Iraq, thousands of Marines pushed north in "seek and destroy" missions, trying to clear the route toward Baghdad that they have nicknamed "Ambush Alley."
The Marines were ordered to question each Iraqi civilian they passed, then hand out ration packets as a gesture of goodwill.
Nervous U.S. troops, wary of more guerrilla-style attacks by Iraqis in civilian clothing, warned approaching drivers near Najaf Sunday they will be shot if they do not leave the area. Four American infantrymen were killed in a suicide attack near Najaf on Saturday.
In Baghdad, Iraqi Army spokesman Gen. Hazem al-Rawi said many suicide attacks will be carried out by Iraqis and some 4,000 Arabs he maintained have come as volunteers to fight the Americans and British.
"Martyrdom operations will continue not only by Iraqis but by thousands of Arabs who came to Baghdad," he told reporters. "They left their countries and families to come here and seek heaven. They promised not to return to their countries but to be buried in Iraq."
In Kuwait, a man in civilian clothes rammed a white pickup truck into a group of U.S. soldiers standing by a store at their base Sunday. Fifteen people were injured, said U.S. military spokesman Col. Guy Shields. It wasn't clear if it was an attack or an accident.
In response to Saturday's suicide attack, U.S. forces have shut down all roads in the region north of Najaf and any driver who approaches a military checkpoint will be shot on sight if they fail to stop or turn around after being warned, said Lt. Col. Scott Rutter, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division.
"This is a completely new dimension," Rutter said. "It is very difficult to distinguish civilians from possible fighters."
A British official in Kuwait downplayed the threat.
"At the moment there's been only one, and in military terms, while most unfortunate, it's not been on the scale of the kamikaze pilots in the Second World War, which in themselves weren't decisive," said British Maj. Gen. Albert Whitley.
U.S. forces were facing pockets of resistance in a string of towns on the main roads to Baghdad — Sanawah, Karbala and Diwaniyah — with American aircraft taking fire from machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft artillery.
Near Nasiriyah, to the southwest, U.S. troops were rushing to build a bridge over the Euphrates River in a crucial effort to unclog supply lines to ground forces farther north on the way to Baghdad. Heavy Marine helicopters were flying in parts for the bridge.
Lack of supplies moving north has apparently slowed the progress of troops headed to the Iraqi capital. The new bridge will enable food, water and ammunition to catch up with troops in forward positions. Last week's fierce sandstorm, which grounded transport helicopters for two days, put Marines behind in resupplying ground forces.
Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the allied coalition, denied that he had asked the Pentagon for more troops before invading Iraq. Speaking at a briefing Sunday, he sidestepped a question about whether the war might last into the summer.
Franks was responding to published reports that the requests of U.S. generals for more ground troops were repeatedly denied by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Reports also quoted U.S. military officials as saying the lack of troops and weapons meant the war might last into the summer.
"One never knows how long a war will take," Franks said.
In readying for the battle for Baghdad, U.S. and British warplanes have focused three-quarters of their strikes in recent days on Republican Guard positions defending the capital.
The U.S. Central Command said coalition aircraft struck overnight at the Abu Garayb Presidential Palace, the Karada military intelligence complex and the barracks of a major paramilitary training center, all in Baghdad. Several telephone exchanges in the city also were hit, as well as a train loaded with Republican Guard tanks.
Buildings in downtown Baghdad shook repeatedly from the blasts. At one point, an orange fireball illuminated the sky, followed by columns of white smoke.
Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf said at a briefing Sunday that several Iraqi civilians had been shot dead in their cars by coalition soldiers in a mood for vengeance after the suicide attack.
Iraq's state television reported that the Najaf bomber — identified as Ali Jaafar al-Noamani, a noncommissioned officer — was posthumously promoted to colonel and awarded two medals. The government reportedly paid his family the equivalent of US$34,000, a fortune in Iraq.
A Marine UH-1 Huey helicopter crashed at a forward supply and refueling point in southern Iraq on Sunday, killing three U.S. servicemen and wounding one, the U.S. military said.
Also Sunday, a British Royal Marine was killed when his river launch came under grenade and gunfire attack, the Defense Ministry said.
U.S. and British warplanes also hit fuel depots Sunday near Karbala, south of Baghdad, to cut fuel supplies to Iraqi tanks.
Wing Commander Andy Suddards, who led a British Harrier raid on one depots, said his mission was a success.
"The visibility was good and I saw the bang," he said.
While soldiers on the ground remained wary of civilians, officials in Kuwait and Washington were optimistic that forces could win the support of the Iraqi people.
Rumsfeld offered an unusually frank assessment about why many Iraqis have been slow to embrace U.S. soldiers even in some areas of the country unfriendly to Saddam.
He noted that the Shiite population in and around Basra rose up against Saddam after the 1991 Gulf War , encouraged by the United States. "The United States and the coalition forces left, and they were slaughtered" by the tens of thousands, Rumsfeld said.
Now, "I'm inclined not to urge people to rise up until we're close and we can be helpful."
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)