Army Fights off Paramilitary Forces on Approach to Baghdad Showdown; Air Strikes Pummel Tanks on Way out of Basra

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Byline: Rowan Scarborough and Bill Gertz, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein yesterday threw waves of marauding paramilitary forces from Baghdad against the Army's mechanized 5th Corps, while Iraqi tanks dashed from the besieged southern city of Basra, only to be pounded by waves of air strikes.

The 5th Corps and its tank-laden 3rd Infantry Division, on their drive to Baghdad, have killed more than 1,000 of the fanatical fighters led by Saddam's personal militia, the black-hooded Fedayeen Saddam, commanders said.

"Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has sent about 1,000 reinforcements from his Ba'ath Party, the Fedayeen and his al-Quds militia to Najaf, As Sanawa and Nasiriyah," said Maj. Gen. Buford Blount, the 3rd Infantry commander. "They are fighting very tenaciously and constantly attacking U.S. forces."

The al-Quds unit, which takes its name from the Arabic name for Jerusalem, are martyrdom volunteers recruited by the regime.

Saddam is sending his attack forces south in convoys of civilian trucks, or even buses, that make it nearly impossible for allied pilots 10,000 feet up to identify them as military targets.

With the war entering its second week, the biggest ground clash came Tuesday night near Najaf. Irregulars, moving on foot and on trucks, tried to surprise the 3rd Infantry Division's 7th Cavalry unit, which was dug in during blinding sandstorms.

The gambit did not work. The unit's Bradley Fighting Vehicles, using night-vision equipment, opened up with their 25 mm guns and killed about 300 of the Iraqi irregulars. No U.S. deaths were reported.

"The 7th Cavalry was engaged by irregular forces firing rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank weapons," said Maj. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal at the Pentagon. "In the middle of bad conditions, our forces responded by destroying more than 30 enemy vehicles and killing enemy personnel in the hundreds."

The skirmishes are a prelude to a brewing showdown between the 5th Corps and the Republican Guard's Medina division and their Soviet T-72 tanks guarding Baghdad's southwestern doorstep. Thick, fierce sandstorms that have limited troop movements this week are due to ease up by today, paving the way for a classic armored battle this weekend.

"Our military has gone more than 200 miles in Iraq," said chief Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke. "They are now closing in on Baghdad. Within just the last day, fighting in the sandstorm, coalition forces have engaged the enemy."

She called Saddam's regime "increasingly desperate," while the invasion force has made "remarkable progress."

Reporters with the 3rd Infantry reported that the Medina division was being reinforced by perhaps 1,000 vehicles moving from Baghdad.

With the Army's 5th Corps repositioning in the blinding dust, pilots capitalized on infrared targeting pods to spot some ground targets through the desert grit. Aircraft typically work "kill boxes" to methodically destroy the tanks, armored vehicles and artillery pieces.

The battle for Baghdad's southern flanks is shaping up this way: The Marine First Expeditionary Force is moving up the east side of the Euphrates River for a confrontation with a Republican Guard division near Al Kut.

In the coming weeks, these forces will be assisted by the Army's most modern fighting force, the 4th Infantry Division, which was supposed to invade northern Iraq from Turkey but will now enter Iraq from Kuwait. The 4th Infantry's troops will be leaving Texas today to link up with their heavy equipment in the Middle East.

On the western side, the 5th Corps is moving in positions from Najaf to Karbala to take on Medina.

The Army's 101st Airborne Division, a helicopter assault unit with 16,000 soldiers and Apache attack helicopters, is likely to play several roles, bolstering southern forces and also moving north to help set up a front there. …