NEAR NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) – U.S. forces in south Iraq said Thursday they were braced for their biggest battle yet on the road to Baghdad # an expected clash near the Shi’ite holy city of Kerbala with elements of Iraq’s Republican Guard.
After two days of clashes with Iraqi forces as they followed the river Euphrates north toward the Iraqi capital, senior U.S. commanders said they expected a possibly decisive battle near Kerbala, 70 miles from Baghdad, within 48 to 72 hours.
“Kerbala is shaping up to be a key battle,” said Lt. Col. Paul Grosskruger of the 94th Engineers’ Battalion, attached to the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division. “It’s being reinforced and it’s fairly well defended.”
A full Iraqi brigade of around 6,000 men, including tanks, had taken up position around the city, U.S. officers said. Some were from the Medina division of the elite Republican Guard and others were regular army troops.
The Iraqi forces are split between the west and east banks of the Euphrates river.
Three brigades of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division, totaling some 15,000 men, are surging north toward Baghdad. Most of the first and second brigades are already up near Najaf, while the third has been tackling Iraqi resistance further south.
But the troops say they are running low on artillery shells and fuel and need more ammunition.
On Thursday some of the U.S. forces spent “downtime” washing, playing music and preparing for the challenge ahead.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair has spoken of a “crucial moment” when the U.S. 3rd Infantry runs into the Republican Guard’s 2nd Medina Division near Kerbala.
Kerbala, a Shi’ite shrine city, is the site of a pivotal battle 1,400 years ago where Hussein, grandson of the prophet Mohammad, was overwhelmed and killed in a clash with a far larger and superior rival Muslim force.
U.S. troops have repeatedly clashed with Iraqi forces in the area over the last two days.
U.S. officers in the field said U.S. 7th Cavalry tank units fought a sharp firefight with Iraqis on Wednesday near a bridge over the Euphrates river at Abu Sukhayr south east of Najaf.
That followed a battle on Tuesday near Najaf in which Pentagon officials said 150 to 300 Iraqi forces were believed killed when they attacked the 7th Cavalry.
Some 120 miles southeast of Najaf, around the city of Nassiriya, other U.S. units were still encountering stiff opposition as they tried to forge a separate route to Baghdad, an Iraqi military spokesman said.
Spokesman Hazim al-Rawi told reporters that Iraqi commandos had raided an “enemy column” near Nassiriya, destroying four armored personnel carriers and killing those inside.
His comments could not be independently verified.
U.S. Marines are clearing the road north of the central city of Nassiriya to make way for a huge military convoy needed for the expected decisive battle for Baghdad.
Reporters have seen more than a dozen burned-out trucks and buses and the corpses of at least 60 Iraqi men lying beside them during a three-day push out of Nassariya, where Marines suffered up to 10 fatalities during ambushes on Saturday.