Battle for Bridge Rages Near Najaf

NEAR NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) – U.S. troops are fighting a fierce battle with Iraqi forces for control of a bridge over the Euphrates river close to the southern Iraqi city of Najaf.

A U.S. military officer monitoring the clash said an unspecified number of U.S. tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles had been destroyed by Iraqis armed with rocket propelled grenades and automatic rifles during the clash at Abu Sukhayr, 20 km (13 miles) southeast of Najaf.

He said he believed that the U.S. crews, under the command of the Third Infantry division, had escaped from their vehicles but their fate was unclear.

The battle was continuing at around 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday. U.S. Central Command in Qatar had no immediate comment.

Reuters correspondent Andrew Gray, reporting from near Najaf, said he heard jets flying overhead. The officer said air support had been called in to support the U.S. forces despite poor visibility caused by a sandstorm.

In a separate clash, a U.S. Marines supply convoy came under attack in southern Iraq in a firefight lasting some 30 minutes, a Reuters reporter with the convoy said.

There were no immediate reports of casualties in what the U.S. troops called a coordinated attack carried out by unidentified assailants from several different directions.

Reuters correspondent Matthew Green said the attack started with a sudden burst of automatic weapons fire during a routine stop which sent the troops diving for firing positions.

They used machineguns, mortars and anti-tank missiles as tanks arrived to support the convoy which was halted on a road north of the southern town of Nassiriya.

“I had eight rounds come over the top of me,” one U.S. serviceman told Reuters as the firefight ended and the convoy moved on. “You could see the muzzle flashes.”

The convoy of some 80 vehicles was carrying fuel, food and ammunition in support of the U.S.-led war against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. U.S. Central Command had no comment.

During the firefight, outgoing mortar rounds thudded repeatedly in the distance while jeeps mounted with launchers fired anti-tank missiles which detonated a few seconds after being fired with a bright blue flash.

Several Marine tanks, one with the words “War Pig” written on its barrel, rumbled along the road and into undergrowth to hunt down the attackers and the convoy resumed its journey.

The troops said a thick dust haze had made it difficult for combat helicopters that normally support the convoy to engage the attackers