US upbeat over reports of uprising in Basra as battle for Baghdad enters crucial stage
Allies assault Basra
* Control Umm Qasr
* US Marines cross Euphrates
* 100 Iraqi bodies outside Nassiriya
* Sandstorm hinders coalition troops advance
* Iraq claims killing 8 invading troops, downing 3 copters
* 2 British soldiers killed in friendly fire
BASRA: Allied forces stepped up the assault on Basra on Tuesday, amid reports of a “popular uprising” in the city, while US columns crossed Nassiriya and closed in on Baghdad. British forces declared the port of Umm Qasr under control.
Iraqi protesters who staged a popular uprising against Saddam Hussein in Basra came under mortar fire from forces loyal to Baghdad, according to media reports, but these were denied by Iraq.
The uprising might have triggered a decision by coalition forces to make “a big push” for the city using heavy artillery. Iraq’s main Shia opposition group seconded news of the uprising. Coalition troops earlier dropped cluster bombs on the city centre, according to Al-Jazeera. The British confirmed that two of their soldiers had been killed in fighting at Basra by “friendly fire”. Humanitarian aid agencies warned of an imminent crisis for the 1.2 million inhabitants of the city.
Iraqi forces shot down an unmanned US spy plane over Basra, Iraqi television reported. Iraq also said it had downed three helicopters and killed eight invading troops, while US and British attacks had killed 16 Iraqis and wounded 95 over the past 24 hours in Baghdad, Najaf, Anbar, Niniveh and Misan.
Baghdad took a battering again as night fell when a series of bombardments appeared to target the southern suburbs where Republican Guard units are stationed. Iraqi state television and another channel went off-air after a round of bombing on Tuesday evening.
US troops primed for an all-out assault on the Republican Guard. They said 30 to 40 Apaches had made initial runs against Mr Hussein’s crack troops as the prelude to what could be an epic tank battle.
The Third Infantry Division was fewer than 100 km south of Baghdad, field reports said, with the 101st Airborne Division crawling up from the southwest and the Marines to the east.
But their advance through the desert was slowed by sand storms which dramatically reduced visibility. A US Apache and a Black Hawk helicopter went missing in southern Iraq.
US commanders predicted the rest of the road to Baghdad would be rough and bloody, while Iraqi leaders vowed the Americans would find the going extremely tough. Mr Hussein urged his loyal Fedayeen paramilitary to target US and British forces throughout the country.
A column of about 4,000 US marines ran a gauntlet of heavy Iraqi fire to cross the Euphrates in Nassiriya. The Marines have put their losses at 10 dead, 12 wounded and 16 missing.
US forces used two bridges to get over the Euphrates, with about 500 Marines and some 50 tanks securing the area in between.
More than 100 Iraqi bodies littered the road north from Nassiriya as marines headed toward Baghdad. About 15 km north of the city, a group of 40 Iraqi prisoners was seen in the custody of US troops. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said US-led forces are holding more than 3,500 prisoners of war.
Allied forces also said they had managed to quell Iraqi resistance in Umm Qasr and aid could start flowing through the port within 48 hours. The BBC reported that mines in the water at the entrance of the port were being cleared.
Iraq’s northern oil capital of Kirkuk was also being hit by fresh airstrikes. US-led forces have not yet found any evidence that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, a senior US commander said. —AFP/Reuters