Battles Rage in Iraqi Cities, Bodies Litter Desert
By Luke Baker and Rosalind Russell
SOUTHERN IRAQ (Reuters - 23 March) - Charred Iraqi corpses smolder in burned-out trucks. Black smoke hangs over bombed cities where U.S. troops battle Iraqi soldiers. Youths greet British tanks with smiles, then sneer when they have passed.
Reuters correspondents in southern Iraq -- some with U.S.-led forces, some operating independently -- watched the war to topple Saddam Hussein unfold on Sunday as U.S. convoys advanced on Baghdad and battles raged for control of key cities.
In the desert near the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf, just 100 miles south of Baghdad, correspondent Luke Baker traveled through a plain littered with Iraqi bodies and gutted vehicles after U.S. forces fought a seven-hour battle against militiamen desperately trying to halt their advance.
Some vehicles were still smoldering, and charred ribs were the only recognizable part of three burned bodies in a destroyed car lying in the roadside dust.
"It wasn't even a fair fight. I don't know why they don't just surrender," said Col. Mark Hildenbrand, commander of the 937th Engineer Group. "When you're playing soccer at home, 3-2 is a fair score, but here it's more like 119-0."
U.S. troops showed reporters a hideout said to have been used by an Iraqi militiaman. The soldier who had used the hideout had only a filthy blanket to protect him from the cold desert nights, and just a plastic bag of raw meat for food.
When he fled, he left behind a picture of his two children.
Southeast of Najaf, Reuters correspondent Sean Maguire saw explosions and huge plumes of smoke over Nassiriya, a strategic city on the Euphrates river where U.S. forces have been fighting to secure bridges to allow them to advance toward Baghdad.
"It looks like artillery, or possibly air strikes," said Maguire, traveling with the U.S. 1st Marine Division.
BLACK SMOKE, WHITE FLAGS
In the southeastern city of Umm Qasr, Iraq's only deep-water port, U.S. and British forces used planes and tanks in a battle to dislodge at least 120 Iraqi Republican Guards.
Reuters correspondent Adrian Croft said British Harrier jets had dropped 500-pound bombs on the city, sending columns of black smoke curling into the air. When the bombing ended, some Iraqis could be seen waving white flags and surrendering.
As night fell U.S. soldiers were still using machinegun, artillery and mortar fire in an attempt to flush out another group of Iraqi fighters from a hideout.
Civilians streamed out of Umm Qasr and the city of Basra. Reuters correspondent Rosalind Russell, south of Basra, watched dozens of trucks and battered cars pass, crammed full with household belongings.
Machine gun and artillery fire echoed behind them.
"There is fighting in the center, on the streets. It is terrible," said Hussein, a 24-year-old engineer who works for the state-run southern oil company in Basra.
"We don't want Americans here. This is Iraq."
One group of Iraqi boys on the side of the road smiled and waved as a convoy of British tanks and trucks rolled by.
But once it had passed, leaving a trail of dust and grit in its wake, their smiles turned to scowls.
"We don't want them here," said 17-year-old Fouad, looking angrily up at the plumes of gray smoke rising from Basra.
He pulled a piece of paper from the waistband of his trousers. Unfolding it, he held up a picture of Saddam, showing the Iraqi leader sitting on a throne with a benign smile.
"Saddam is our leader," he said defiantly. "Saddam is good."