An Nasiriyah, March 25 (Reuters): US Marines finally punched a path through stubborn Iraqi resistance and forced their way across the Euphrates river after a fierce street battle in the southern Iraqi city of An Nasiriyah that opened up a new line of advance northward toward Baghdad.
But they met a fresh ambush on the road north, despite an air strike that killed at least 30 Iraqis apparently heading into battle.
In Baghdad, warplanes hammered elite Republican Guards defending the city.
Field commanders said the war unleashed by the US and Britain last week to topple President Saddam Hussein was on track, but America’s top soldier said the hardest combat of the war still lay ahead.
Military briefers told reporters at Central Command in Qatar that US paratroopers had seized a desert landing strip overnight and that six Iraqi jamming systems aimed at disrupting US satellite positioning equipment had been destroyed.
As the battle front moved closer to Baghdad, the main prize in the campaign, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers said: “We think the toughest fighting is ahead of us.”
Once out of An Nasiriyah city, the Marines passed blasted Iraqi buses and other vehicles hit by the air strike.
Two days after a first bid to cross the river and the nearby Saddam Canal was blocked by Iraqi irregulars, the Marines laid down a 3.5-km corridor of armoured vehicles and the convoy charged through the streets under cover of helicopter rockets and a barrage of artillery, tank and heavy machinegun fire.
Once the trucks and other vulnerable vehicles were across, the tanks and other armour rolled out behind, leaving Iraqi fighters still operating in An Nasiriyah, a dusty city of more than a quarter of a million, 375 km south of the capital.
US leaders “wanted us to come north, so we needed to get all of our stuff through, and this was the way to do it”, said Lew Craparotta, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Infantry regiment.
The Euphrates had been a major barrier on their route to Baghdad from Kuwait, 150 km to the south.
At least five Iraqis died during nearly three hours of intense fighting from first light in the city centre, Craparotta said. One US Marine was slightly wounded from a bullet ricochet.
Two of the dead Iraqi men, whose family said they were brothers in their 40s, lay on the floor in separate rooms of a house looking onto the main road. Outside, an old woman wept beside her wounded husband as the Marines tried to treat him.
US soldiers were leading away prisoners, some of them injured after an apparent bombing raid. Some of the Iraqis were wearing the black clothes typical of Iraqi militias. No weapons were visible.
Cobra helicopters blasted Iraqi positions with rockets, American tanks shattered low-rise brick homes with high-explosive shells from close range — sometimes as little as 100 metres. Bullets ripped through the flimsy walls.
The heavy rattle of 50-mm machinegun fire from armoured vehicles was almost constant as thousands of US troops forced their way through the city in the early morning light.
A CNN correspondent near An Nasiriyah said a Marine was wounded by “friendly fire” in confused fighting overnight. The US-led forces have largely skirted cities. But without going through An Nasiriyah, the bridges could not be crossed.
An advance up the road toward Kut, on the Tigris river, could be a second prong in an attack on Baghdad, complementing US infantry west of the Euphrates, who have already probed to within 100 km of the capital.
A CNN correspondent with the 7th Cavalry also crossed the Euphrates on Tuesday, apparently over a different bridge.
On Sunday, the US Marines had said they were in control of two bridges in An Nasiriyah, one over the Euphrates river and one over the Saddam Canal, 3.5 km to the north of it.
But they had been unable to control the streets in between and suffered casualties on Sunday when Iraqi forces, including the Saddam Fidayeen, mounted a guerrilla counter-attack.
An Nasiriyah, built in a farming region, was the site of a 1915 battle in World War I when British forces took 500 casualties in seizing the town from the Ottoman Turks. About 500 defenders died in that battle nearly a century ago.