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Finally, the magic words but no Chemical Ali

Shatra, March 31 (Reuters): Hundreds of Iraqis shouting “Welcome to Iraq” greeted US Marines who entered the town of Shatra today after storming it with planes, tanks and helicopter gunships.

A foot patrol picked its way through the small southern town, 35 km north of the city of Nasiriyah, after being beckoned in by a crowd of people. “There’s no problem here. We are happy to see Americans,” one young man shouted.

The welcome was a tonic for soldiers who have not always received the warm reception they expected after US and British leaders told them the Iraqi people were waiting to be freed from repression under President Saddam Hussein. “It’s not every day you get to liberate people,” said one delighted Marine.

As they searched the town, the Marines pushed back the excited crowd. An interpreter urged local people through a loudspeaker on a Humvee not to hinder their movements.

But as night approached with the town not fully under their control, the Marines pulled back.

It had been a day of mixed fortunes.

It began with a pre-dawn raid to try to kill senior Iraqi officials believed to be directing guerrilla attacks on US troops and their supply convoys.

The ambushes have slowed the advance on Baghdad. This Marine unit retraced its steps back south down Highway 7 to Shatra after bypassing the Iraqi forces there in their rapid advance last week.

Planes dropped precision-guided bombs on four targets during the morning raid. Tanks and armoured personnel carriers then moved to the edge of the town and helicopter gunships raked the rubble-strewn target sites with heavy machinegun fire. The targets were the local Baath party headquarters and “associated planning sites”, Marine officers said.

Having entered the town, the Marines searched without success for the body of a colleague who was killed last week and whose corpse was believed to be in a hospital in the town. They trampled over the ruins of a local headquarters of Saddam’s Baath party.

Another Baath party building across the street had been set ablaze by looters who carried away sofas from inside.

Intelligence reports had suggested that Ali Hassan al-Majeed, or ‘Chemical Ali’, the cousin whom Saddam has put in charge of the southern front, was in the town. But Majeed, who earned his nickname for overseeing the use of poison gas against Kurdish villagers in 1988, was nowhere to be seen.

The Marines had also received intelligence reports that an Iraqi general was holed up inside the town but arrived just too late to capture him, military officials said.

“He got away just before we got here,” said company commander Captain Mike Martin. “We believe there are about 200 to 300 Baath party loyalists and Saddam Fidayeen irregulars in the town,” he added. But the Fidayeen paramilitary forces had also fled. Marines found a light still on and the telephone ringing when they entered what was thought to be their headquarters.

Strategy shift

Before the Marines stormed the town, they searched the city’s southern outskirts block by block to weed out Iraqi resistance in what military sources called a change of tactics.

The decision to raid Shatra and send reinforcements to help the Marines carry out the risky searches in southern Nasiriyah signalled a shift in policy to secure vital supply lines around the strategic city after Iraqi ambushes, the sources said.

“We are going in to go block by block and we are going to weed out all enemy personnel,” said Captain Rick Crevier, commander of Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st US Marines. Crevier dismissed talk of a change of tactics but a military source said: “This is a change of policy, a new phase.”

Nasiriyah, on the Euphrates, is a key city because two main highways here are vital for getting supplies to invading troops further north on the way to Baghdad and for bringing in humanitarian supplies for Iraqi civilians.

The Iraqis have staged several ambushes in the area, including one in which at least seven Marines were killed.

US officers say that bypassing towns and cities had given local people no chance to revolt and that civilians have been forced to remain loyal to Saddam. Iraq denies such charges.

Revolts against Saddam that were encouraged by the US in the 1991 Gulf War were ruthlessly suppressed, leaving many Iraqis cautious about embracing the invaders this time.

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