BOSTON AND AMMAN, JORDAN — Fighting for several key Iraqi cities intensified Saturday as US and British troops faced stiffer resistance than they had anticipated.
Although US military officials said that Umm Qasr had been "overwhelmed by the US Marines," live TV images showed that pockets of Iraqi soldiers were slowing the US and UK advance into the port city. Iraqi soldiers have reportedly put on civilian clothes and are using rockets and small arms fire against coalition troops. While the Marines did capture the "new" port area of Umm Qasr, the city itself is still in play.
There are also reports of artillery fire in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. According to Reuters, US Marine tanks are battling Iraqi forces on the western outskirts of Basra. "We are attacking Iraqi forces, all of which are west of Basra," said US Marine Capt. Andrew Bergen. "I would certainly say it's a major battle." BBC correspondents are saying that the US and UK forces will take up position on the west and south of the city and wait out the Republican Guard units in the city. Military officials say that surrender negotiations are under way, which, if successful, will eliminate the need for urban fighting.
And in another blow to British forces, two SeaKing early-warning helicopters from the HMCS Royal Ark battle group collided in international waters just off the Kuwaiti coast. Military officials say six UK Navy flyers and one US Navy officer were killed. So far, 18 members of the British forces have died, all in helicopter crashes in the past two days.
Reports of Iraqi casualties
In Baghdad, Iraqi Information Minister Mohammad al-Sahhaf told the media that 207 civilians, mostly women and children, had been wounded in the "shock and awe" bombardment of the city on Friday night and Saturday morning. Western reporters are being allowed to go to Iraqi hospitals to interview those injured in the attacks. BBC-TV carried pictures of wounded civilains, and Iraqi doctors who claimed that entire family groups were casualties. Al Sahhaf also denied that Iraq had been torching oil wells, saying that troops had set oil-filled trenches ablaze in an effort to prevent coalition planes from finding targets easily.
Meanwhile, US intelligence is reporting that the initial strike on Saddam Hussein's bunker may have killed three top Iraqi leaders. ABC News says one of the three may include Ali Hassan Majid, a cousin of Saddam Hussein known as "Chemical Ali" for his role in the gassing of Kurdish civilians in 1988. The network is also reporting that that even with today's bombing, secret talks have continued behind the scenes about a Saddam Hussein surrender and exile to, among other places, the country of Mauritania in west Africa. The negotiations involve an emissary from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A former French colony, Mauritania is an Islamic republic said to have warm ties with Iraq.
In the north, about 70 cruise missiles are reported to have been fired into Iraqi Kurdish areas under the control of Ansar al-Islam, a hardline Islamist group accused of having links to the Al Qaeda terrorist group.
On Friday, a senior brigade commander surrendered to coalition troops. The head of Iraq's 51st Infantry Division gave himself up and there are hopes that the 8,000 soldiers under his command will also decided not to fight. But there are conflicting reports as to exactly how many of the troops have decided to lay down their weapons. The troops were part of the regular Iraqi army designed to protect to Basra, Iraq's second largest city.
The mechanized division had about 200 tanks before the war, according to independent analysts and US officials. The 51st was the key force protecting Basra, a major transportation and oil shipment hub on the Shatt al-Arab waterway that leads to the Persian Gulf. While the regular army division was not among the better Iraqi fighting forces, its surrender would be an important blow to the Iraqi military leadership and remove another obstacle in the battle for Basra.
Turkey moves into northern Iraq
Turkey moved 1,500 commandos into northern Iraq on Friday to "beef up" forces already there, a Turkish military official told reporters. But officials on the Turkey-Iraq border says the troops haven't moved into Iraqi territory yet, If it has happened, the move comes despite a US request for Turkey not to move any more troops because of fears it will spark a conflict with Kurdish forces in the area. Turkey already maintains several thousand soldiers backed by a few dozen tanks in northern Iraq to chase Turkish Kurdish guerrillas. Turkey will also shift another 5,000 troops to the border area, which could be moved into Northern Iraq at a moment's notice.
The Turkish foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, said his nation was determined to send more troops in northern Iraq, despite US objections, in order to prevent a possible refugee flow and any attempt by Iraqi Kurds to break away from Iraq. The US has warned Turkey that moving more troops into the area could result in friendly fire incident, while Iraqi Kurds say it will lead to open clashes.
Turkey's move came just after the government allowed the US to fly over its territory. Senior US officials say that Turkey's decision came without any conditions atached.
Material from wire services was used in this report.