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Marines Recover 'Critical Documents'

Marines Recover 'Critical Documents'

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SALMAN PAK, Iraq (AP) -- Marines pulled intelligence from a shattered Republican Guard headquarters Sunday after a night of fiery bombardments, and they searched a suspected terrorist training camp, finding the shell of a passenger jet believed to be used for hijacking practice.

Tanks with the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines rolled into Salman Pak, just southeast of Baghdad, pounding the guard headquarters and other military facilities with airstrikes and tank fire overnight. They also seized one of Saddam Hussein's palaces near the Tigris River town.

U.S. military officials said there is a suspected weapons of mass destruction site in the town that dates back to 1991. When Iraq was developing its biological weapons program before the first Gulf War, the main facility was a secret complex at Salman Pak.

There is also an airstrip in the town that the Bush administration says Iraq used more recently to offer terrorist training to Islamic militants.

Central Command spokesman Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said Marines raided the complex using information from captured foreign fighters from Egypt, Sudan and other nations.

"The nature of the work being done by some of those people we captured, their inferences about the type of training they received, all these things give us the impression that there is terrorist training that was conducted at Salman Pak," Brooks said Sunday.

Marines and Army troops were battling Republican Guard soldiers and fighters who appeared to be foreign Arab Islamic fundamentalists south of Baghdad as U.S. forces continued to move to encircle the Iraqi capital.

In the overnight assault on Salman Pak, Marines in night-vision goggles used tank guns, .50-caliber rounds, machine-gun launched grenades and TOW missiles to hit Iraqi tanks, trucks, armored personnel carriers and military installations. Violent explosions illuminated the sky with an orange glow and singed the air with the smell of burning molasses. At least 13 Iraqis were killed.

The Marines had thought there were up to 2,000 Iraqi fighters in Salman Pak -- mostly members of the ruling Baath Party militia and Saddam's Fedayeen. But instead the Americans found abandoned trenches and empty sandbag firing positions on rooftops.

"I think they scurried like a bunch of roaches," said Gunnery Sgt. Sandor Vegh, 34, of Circleville, Ohio. It was possible the Iraqis fled across the Tigris over an unseen pontoon bridge, said Col. Steve Hummer, commanding officer of the 7th Marines.

At the suspected terrorist training camp, windows were shattered by the bombardment, and artillery had turned a field into a smoking black moonscape.

In the middle of a clearing of trees, rows of plastic chairs were set up like an outdoor classroom. There was a training course of climbing ropes and wooden obstacles and a three-story tower with ropes down the side to practice rappelling.

At a large intersection, on one corner there was a fire truck, and another corner was a large abandoned passenger plane, bleached by the sun, its tail broken off. The Marines inferred it was used to practice hijacking.

There was also a ravaged double-decker passenger bus, speedboats and green train cars. Storehouses were filled with gas masks.

The bombardment destroyed several buildings in the Republican Guard's 2nd Corps Headquarters, but left intact the one building Marines believed held key intelligence.

Lt. Col. Michael Belcher said the Marines recovered "critical documents" regarding enemy weapons and communications. Parts from four computers -- with "Baath Party office" scribbled on the side by Marines -- were hauled out and taken by helicopters for analysis.

Throughout the town of Salman Pak, they found caches of grenades, mortars, small arms rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, as well as abandoned armored personnel carriers and SUVs.

Members of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing searched two military buildings at the edge of town, uncovering maps, manuals and a model that appeared to show how to set a booby trap.

There were pictures of Saddam everywhere, and many empty pigeon coops and bird cages. Some Marines speculated the birds had been used to detect chemical weapons. There were no obvious signs of chemical or biological weapons inside the buildings.

Inside a single-story bunker that appeared to be part of a junior officers' training camp for the Republican Guard, they found cots, lockers with snapshots of friends and children, and several English-language textbooks.

A simple gym contained weightlifting equipment and pictures of soccer teams on the wall. There were long tables in an eating hall, where the walls were painted with Bedouin scenes, sayings from the Koran and quotes from Saddam.

In another building, which Marines believed to be a Fedayeen camp, they found several black coats like the ones worn by members of the feared militia.

"Going through this stuff you can tell a lot of them are just ordinary guys," said Gunnery Sgt. Michael Templeton, 39, of Livonia, Calif.

Elsewhere, Marines fought street-to-street battles with Iraqi forces over control of a bridge leading into the Baghdad. Marines said they control the bridge, which crosses a canal, but cannot cross it with heavy armor because Iraqi fighters dug out its embankment to weaken it; they also rigged it with explosives.

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

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