US forces shift emphasis

In an already-grueling second week of ground combat, US forces are shifting emphasis: looking behind instead of ahead, taking time to fight still-substantial pockets of Iraqi resistance, secure supply lines and prepare for an assault or siege of Baghdad.

That doesn't mean the pressure on Baghdad and its surroundings has let up. Airstrikes using massive bombs and helicopter attacks against elite Republican Guard divisions surrounding the capital continue.

"[The US is] saying, 'lets deal with the problems we bypassed,'" says retired Marine Corps Col. Randolph Gangle, executive director of the Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities. "Go back and clean up the towns and villages that need to be secured. At the same time, keep the pressure on Baghdad so they don't know what we're really focused on."

On the ground in Iraq, US Marines set up makeshift camps on the side of the road, waiting for badly needed fuel supplies and working to improve communications with units further back.

"We're trying not to screw ourselves up and to watch our rear by establishing these lines of communication," a Marine lieutenant told the Associated Press.

However the fighting is characterized, coalition forces remained active Saturday.

* Army and Marine units continue to secure southern Iraq, cutting off the northern approaches to the city of Basra. Meanwhile, paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division are arriving at an Iraqi airbase and are expected to help secure an area near Nasiriyah that has earned a reputation as "Ambush Alley," CNN reported.

* Special operations units launched attacks throughout western Iraq. US Central Command in Qatar says Army Rangers raided an Iraqi commando headquarters in the western desert, seizing weapons, gas masks, and other equipment. Other US commandos captured a group of Iraqis dressed as civilians and armed with petroleum bombs.

* Air strikes targeted nine Baath Party headquarters buildings including one northeast of Basra where US military officials say some 200 pro-Hussein fedayeen militia members were gathered.

* Southwest of Baghdad, US Apache attack helicopters attacked tanks and other equipment of the Republican Guard Medina division near the city of Karbala. Two Apaches crashed as they returned to the 101st Airborne Division's base in a remote part of the southern Iraqi desert, but all crew members escaped injury.

* Airborne troops in northern Iraq continue to secure their positions. US troops joined Kurdish forces in attacks against Iraqi positions. Iraqi soldiers are reported to be pulling back from the area.

"There is no pause on the battlefield," says US Central Command Major General Victor Renuart, director of CENTCOM operations. "It's unfair to characterize the fact that you don't see tanks rolling on any single day."

Still, US troops remain vulnerable to Iraqi attack, as a car bombing that killed four American soldiers shows. A taxi drove up to a checkpoint north of Najaf that was manned by members of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division. When soldiers approached the vehicle, it exploded.

Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan identified the bomber as a noncommissioned military officer. He said the suicide bombing was "just the beginning" and that such attacks would become "routine military policy."

Also Saturday, the bodies of several US soldiers were recovered from shallow graves near Nasiriyah. US military officials say they are investigating whether any war crimes were committed against the soldiers.

The suicide bombing and reported roadside attacks by militiamen not wearing uniforms suggests the kind of non-conventional guerrilla tactics Iraqi forces are likely to employ inside Baghdad, analysts say.

"This [suicide bombing] is an escalation in Iraqi tactics and it indicates an even higher level of resolve than was attributed to them before the war,," says Greg Koblentz of the security studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "That creates huge problems for protecting supply convoys since any civilian vehicle or civilian could be a potential bomb."

The US will likely need to increase its troop strength in order to tackle Baghdad and fend off Iraqi threats elsewhere. On Friday, about 2,000 members of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit arrived in Kuwait and are preparing to secure supply lines in southern Iraq.

Troops from the Army's 4th Infantry Division flew from their base in Texas Friday towards Kuwait. Originally slated to launch a northern front from Turkey, the 4th Infantry Division is now expected to operate from southern Iraq. But first, the division will have to wait for its heavy tanks and armored personnel carriers now aboard cargo ships sailing towards Persian Gulf ports. It could take several weeks before those troops are ready for combat, Mr. Gangle says.

The US Defense Department says another 100,000 US troops will start deploying to the region in April, but moving these forces will take several weeks.

Humanitarian aid is arriving more quickly. With the waters off of Umm Qasr finally cleared of mines, tons of drinking water and other needed supplies finally are being offloaded from a British cargo ship after days of delays.

Civilians beyond Iraq's borders also remain in harm's way. A low-flying Iraqi missile hit in the sea near a Kuwait City shopping mall early Saturday morning. There were no warning air raid sirens. The nighttime attack damaged the building but caused only two minor injuries.

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