Baghdad Battle Looms Marines Cross Euphrates

NASSIRIYA–Iraq (Reuters)–Warplanes hammered elite Republican Guards defending Baghdad on Tuesday as US armored columns–slowed by blinding sandstorms–closed in for the decisive battle for the Iraqi capital.

In southern Iraq–US Marines finally punched past Iraqi resistance to cross the Euphrates river at Nassiriya. But they met a fresh ambush on the road north–despite an air strike that killed at least 30 Iraqis apparently heading into battle.

Military briefers told reporters at Central Command in Qatar that US paratroopers had seized a desert landing strip overnight and that six Iraqi jamming systems aimed at disrupting US satellite positioning equipment had been destroyed.

In the far south–British and US commanders said they had finally snuffed out resistance by Iraqi gunmen in the deepwater port of Umm Qasr–which could now be opened to aid supplies for the hungry and thirsty local population.

But–as the war aimed at toppling President Saddam Hussein stretched to a sixth day–Iraqi officials said US and British hopes of a quick and easy victory were fizzling out.

And–as the battle front moved closer to Baghdad–Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers said: "We think the toughest fighting is ahead of us."

Waves of air raids hit Baghdad’s outer defenses–sending shock waves from distant blasts thudding into the city.

"It’s a really heavy attack," Reuters correspondent Nadim Ladki said. "Even though the explosions are quite far away–they are shaking buildings in the center of the city."

The Medina Division of Republican Guards stands between Baghdad and US armored columns that have thrust to the Kerbala area–60 miles south of the capital.

Ladki said warplanes could be heard but not seen through dust storms and smoke from blazing oil-trenches around Baghdad.

"The Medina division is now under heavy air attack although poor weather will hamper this," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in London. "Since military action began–a huge amount has already been achieved."

DEADLY AIR STRIKE

As the Marine convoy pushed north–it passed the corpses of at least 30 Iraqis–apparently killed in an air strike that hit buses–trucks and cars some 20 km (12 miles) north of Nassiriya.

All the dead were men–some of them wearing the black clothes of Iraqi irregular forces. Other men–many of them wounded–were taken prisoner by US Marines.

Saddam urged Iraqi tribesmen to join the battle against US and British forces–without waiting for further orders.

"The enemy has violated your lands and now they are violating your tribes and families," the Iraqi leader said in a statement read on his behalf on state television.

With the Marine force now across the Euphrates at Nassiriya–a separate military column was heading up the main Basra-Baghdad highway–which crosses the river to the west of Nassiriya.

British forces south of Basra blocked an attempted breakout by up to 50 Iraqi tanks seeking to press southward from the edge of the city–a British naval commander said.

Renuart said US-led forces did not plan to besiege Basra–Iraq’s second city–but would hit military targets there.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan demanded action to improve the humanitarian situation in Basra. "A city of that size cannot afford to go without electricity or water for long," he said.

Blair said he would visit the United States to meet President George W. Bush on Wednesday for the first time since the war began. Blair will also meet Annan on Thursday.

In a reminder of the cost of the war–Bush urged the US Congress to quickly pass his request for almost $75 billion in emergency spending.

British forces acknowledged their second combat death–saying a soldier from the Black Watch 1st Battalion had been killed in fighting in southern Iraq–taking to 20 the number of dead and missing British troops since the war started.

US forces said they had destroyed a downed Apache attack helicopter to prevent the Iraqis from seizing any of the sophisticated targeting equipment and weapons aboard.

The aircraft was lost during an attack by several dozen helicopters on Republican Guards near Kerbala. The two pilots were captured by Iraqi forces and shown on local television.

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