'The toughest day'

Casualties: At least 16 Americans die

others are taken prisoner

Friendly fire: U.S. Patriot missle downs British jet fighter, killing 2

On the ground: Commanders report bloodiest combat so far

War in Iraq

March 24, 2003|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In the worst day of casualties for U.S. forces trying to overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime, at least 16 Americans were killed, and five were taken prisoner in battles in southern Iraq yesterday.

The fast-moving U.S. invasion army, which military leaders said was advancing ahead of schedule, drove near the outskirts of Baghdad. But behind the front lines, the bloodiest combat of the war raged.

"It's the toughest day of resistance that we've had thus far," said Lt. Gen. John Abizaid at U.S. Central Command in Qatar. He denied, however, that the intensifying opposition by Iraq meant that the war was turning out to be more difficult than U.S. planners had expected.

Iraqi officials were quoted on Al-Jazeera, the Arab TV station, as saying that their troops were falling back to allow American forces to become overextended, then attacking behind U.S. lines.

Separately, two British airmen were killed in a deadly case of friendly fire when a U.S. Patriot missile battery downed their Tornado jet fighter near the Iraq-Kuwait border. Officials said the plane's transponder, designed to identify it as an allied aircraft, may have failed to work properly. And two British soldiers were missing after coming under attack in southern Iraq, Britain's Ministry of Defense said.

It was a day of mistakes, of ambush and of deception, a day that confronted Americans with the cost of war.

In what U.S. officials called a tragic error, about two dozen American soldiers were attacked after their convoy of six vehicles made a wrong turn near An Nasiriyah, a Euphrates River town about 230 miles southeast of Baghdad. The soldiers were members of the 507th Maintenance Company from Fort Bliss, Texas.

About 10 Americans, including four who were wounded, were rescued by Marines. Seven others were reported killed, and five, including at least one woman, were taken prisoner. There were reports that three others were missing.

The bodies of four of the Americans were shown on Iraqi television and Al-Jazeera. Videotape of five American prisoners being interrogated on camera was aired on TV networks around the world.

"I don't think that these pictures will damage either the psychology of our soldiers, morale of our soldiers, or the steadfastness of our government or the resolve of our people," Abizaid said. "We're a pretty tough people." But the general and other American officials reacted with outrage to the graphic images.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld called the taping a violation of the Geneva Conventions, which say prisoners of war are to be protected from public curiosity.

President Bush, returning from two nights at Camp David in the Maryland mountains, issued a plea on behalf of the prisoners. "We expect them to be treated humanely, just like we'll treat any prisoners of theirs that we capture," he told reporters on the South Lawn of the White House.

"If not, the people who mistreat the prisoners will be treated as war criminals," the president added.

In one incident, Iraqis waved a flag of surrender at advancing U.S. Marines, then shelled them with artillery. In another, Iraqi troops dressed in civilian clothes and driving commercial vehicles attacked U.S. soldiers.

In An Nasiriyah, scene of the deadly ambush and of pitched battles between American and Iraqi troops, up to nine U.S. Marines were killed. U.S. commanders described the fighting there as the most brutal engagement in the war.

American officials, from Bush on down, tried to use the latest turn of events in Iraq to lower public optimism that the war would be quick and bloodless.

"It's important for the American people to realize that this war has just begun," Bush said.

Referring to round-the-clock TV coverage from the Persian Gulf, which has brought the war home in an unprecedented fashion, Bush said the first five days of the war "may seem like a long time because of all the action on TV."

"But," he cautioned, "we're just in the beginning phases."

"Clearly, they are not a beaten force," said Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "This is going to get a lot harder."

Last night, in a foreshadowing of the fighting, Army attack helicopters and Army ATAMCS surface missiles took on Iraq's fearsome Republican Guards, deployed in a ring around Baghdad. Their mission was to soften up the Medina division. During the attack, one pilot was wounded by small arms fire but managed to fly back to safety.

Lt. Gen. Sultan Hashim Ahmed, Iraq's defense minister, said on state television that he was confident his forces could keep the capital from falling into American hands.

"If they want to take Baghdad, they will have to pay a heavy price," he said.

The whereabouts of Hussein and senior members of his regime continued to be a mystery. The official state news agency said he met with his top advisers yesterday.

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