BRITAIN’S Desert Rats and paratroopers were early today struggling to put a stranglehold on Iraq’s strategically vital second city, Basra, against strong resistance from Saddam Hussein’s diehard forces.
Iraqi conscripts belonging to the 51st Division, well-armed Republican Guards and internal security forces fought off allied attempts to enter the southern city of 1.3m people.
Coalition forces faced fiercer opposition than expected throughout southern Iraq and their commander, the American general Tommy Franks, warned: “There may well be tough days ahead.”
US forces, meanwhile, were reported to have advanced at least 150 miles northwards into Iraq. The Pentagon said they had crossed the Euphrates river and were half way to Baghdad, but Reuters news agency said they appeared to have been halted in the early hours by Iraqi troops southeast of Najaf, 100 miles from the capital.
British intelligence sources said there was a growing belief Saddam was either seriously injured or dead because he had not made contact with his senior commanders since the opening American strike on Thursday morning.
There were unconfirmed reports that the Iraqi leader had been taken away on a stretcher from the ruins of a complex on the outskirts of Baghdad. His two sons, Uday and Qusay, were thought to have escaped serious injury and be alive. Iraqi television later broadcast footage of Saddam it claimed was shot yesterday.
On the third day of the war, casualties increased. Six British crew members and an American died when two Sea King helicopters collided near HMS Ark Royal in the Gulf.
Near Basra, three members of an ITN crew — including the correspondent Terry Lloyd — were feared killed when their car was hit by gunfire, possibly from coalition troops.
In northeast Iraq, Paul Moran, 39, a freelance Australian cameraman, was killed by a car bomb detonated by a suspected supporter of Al-Qaeda.
Early today, 13 American soldiers were injured, six seriously, in a grenade attack at their camp in northern Kuwait near the Iraqi border. The suspected culprit, who was being questioned, was a US serviceman of Muslim origin.
In Baghdad, palls of black smoke filled the sky after Iraqi forces lit at least two dozen trenches filled with oil around the capital in a vain attempt to prevent further air raids following the devastating “shock and awe” attacks on Friday night.
The futility of the exercise was evident soon after nightfall, when allied planes again bombarded the city, plunging several districts into darkness. The attacks were continuing early this morning. The Pentagon said American ships and warplanes had fired 500 cruise missiles and several hundred precision weapons on Iraqi targets over the past day.
As American tank forces advanced north, British troops backed by US air power were left behind to deal with Basra, which is seen as the key to securing southern oil supplies.
The auguries for the fall of Basra had initially looked good. On the outskirts of the city along Highway 80 — nicknamed the Highway of Death during the last Gulf war — groups of Iraqi soldiers waved white flags in surrender.
The 1st US Marine Expeditionary Force passed through the northern suburbs on Friday night to an ecstatic welcome from local people.
Yesterday, an American force routed the Iraqis in a tank battle to the west of the city and Britain’s 16 Air Assault Brigade secured part of its perimeter.
Last night, however, a spokesman for US Central Command in Qatar admitted that early reports claiming 8,000 soldiers from the Iraqi 51st Division had surrendered were wildly optimistic. He said the true number was more like 1,000 or 1,500.
As the Desert Rats linked up with British paratroopers, it became clear that capturing southern Iraq was far more complicated than envisaged. Republican Guards with artillery and heavy machineguns, supported by internal security forces, were resisting the British advance. Members of Fedayeen Saddam, a fanatical paramilitary group headed by Saddam’s son Uday, were also believed to be in the city.
Franks made clear at his first press conference of the campaign that there was no intention of entering Basra and engaging in street fighting. Instead, US Marines were negotiating with a senior Iraqi general in “face-to-face talks”, he said.
Further to the south, the key port of Umm Qasr, which was first reported captured on Thursday evening, finally fell yesterday after intense fighting. But American military officers warned that gunmen were still on the loose in the town.
Umm Qasr is vital to the coalition’s strategy as the entry port both for military materiel and food aid for the millions of Iraqis whose access to UN assistance has been cut off.
Speaking to journalists at his war command post at Doha, Franks acknowledged American forces were meeting resistance. He said he did not know if the Iraqi leader was alive or not: “But the way we’re undertaking this military operation would not change regardless of what happens to Saddam.”