HIGHWAY 80 IN SOUTHERN IRAQ – U.S. and British forces moved in on Iraq’s second-largest city Saturday, taking its airport and a bridge while Saddam Hussein’s security forces resisted with artillery and heavy machine guns.
U.S. forces captured the airport in north Basra after encountering resistance from Iraqi troops in armored personnel carriers, said Marine Lt. Eric Gentrup.
“There was a decent amount of resistance,” Gentrup said.
The Americans had taken one of several bridges leading into the city, but Iraqis still held others, British officials said. The British took charge of fighting there Saturday as U.S. Marines pressed north.
The plan is not to storm the city but to force an Iraqi surrender and avoid bloody urban warfare.
“This is about liberation, not occupation,” top U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks said Saturday of the Basra operation.
Warplanes from the USS Kitty Hawk resumed bombing missions Saturday in support of Army and Marine forces near Basra, after flying more than 60 missions overnight. None of those planes dropped bombs, officers said.
Rear Adm. Barry Costello, the commander of the aircraft carrier USS Constellation’s battle group, said planes from his ship flew 74 support missions for Basra. It was not immediately clear of those planes bombed any positions.
“It gets you excited, I mean, people are trying to kill us … so I was a little anxious,” said Cmdr. Mark Hubbard, of Lemoore, Calif. “I think you’d be a fool not to be afraid. But controlled fear is your friend, uncontrolled fear is your enemy.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. Army’s V Corps took Nassiriyah, northwest of Basra, said U.S. Navy Capt. Frank Thorp, a spokesman for Central Command.
At Nassiriyah, the commander and deputy commander of Iraq’s 51st Infantry were among those who surrendered Friday night, becoming the highest-ranking Iraqi officials to give up, Thorp said.
The number of those who have surrendered is “in the thousands” and coalition forces have taken about 1,500 POWs, he said.
Just outside Nassiriyah, traffic along the U.S. military supply route — flatbeds, Humvees and other vehicles — was so heavy it sometimes came to a standstill.
The massive jam extended back to the Kuwait border, where much of the allied forces waited Saturday in long columns of vehicles to cross into Iraq.
Soldiers eyed the gridlock, which could present a lethal situation if hostile forces opened fire.
“It would be tragic if the Iraqis had some artillery,” said 2nd Lt. Sarah Skinner of Vassar, Mich., a platoon leader.
A young Bedouin dressed in traditional black robes blew a kiss to the convoy as it crawled north.
Meanwhile, south of Basra, American and British forces came under artillery fire Saturday as they moved up Highway 80.
Some Iraqi soldiers surrendered on the highway while others held out against the U.S. and British convoy grinding past blazing oil pipelines and concrete barracks.
Iraqi forces fired artillery toward U.S. troops but missed. Cobra attack helicopters flew overhead through clouds of smoke, as coalition forces moved within miles of Basra.
“There’s still a little bit of fighting but we’re getting there,” Thorp said.
British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said in London that regular Iraqi forces have withdrawn from Basra but elements of Saddam Hussein’s security forces continued to resist.
Hoon said Saddam’s regime was crumbling under the pressure of a huge air assault. “As last night’s dramatic television coverage showed, the lights stayed on in Baghdad, but the instruments of tyranny are collapsing,” Hoon said.
Hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles lined Highway 80 — nicknamed the “Highway of Death” during the 1991 Gulf War when U.S. airstrikes wiped out an Iraqi military convoy fleeing Kuwait.
The roadside was dotted with Iraqi tanks blackened by direct hits on their dirt bunkers. White flags flew over some deserted, dilapidated barracks, including one where a white cloth had been hung over a picture of Saddam Hussein.
Other barracks still needed to be cleared. U.S. Marines used amphibious assault vehicles to surround clusters of low, crude concrete buildings and shell nearby tanks.
At one of the barracks, Iraqis emerged to surrender, stumbling across a rutted field clutching bags of belongings. As Marines moved toward them, the Iraqis knelt in the field with their arms crossed behind their heads.
Elsewhere groups of Iraqi men in civilian clothes stood near the highway. Allied officers believed they were Iraqi soldiers who had fled their barracks and changed from their uniforms before Marines and British forces arrived.
To the rear, other allied troops took custody of prisoners who surrendered Friday, including members of Iraq’s 51st Infantry Division. Captives were placed in improvised pens of razor wire, watched over by Marines. Their partly disassembled rifles were piled beside the road.
The surrendering soldiers were not the elite Republican Guard that anchors Saddam’s defense. They seemed to be underfed, ragtag fighters, many of them draftees in T-shirts.
Elsewhere in Iraq, the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division surged 100 miles through the desert to the Euphrates River, heading straight for the Republican Guard around Baghdad.
The Army’s 101st Airborne Division also joined the fight. Its 3rd Brigade was making a marathon trip through the desert, with soldiers forced to wear goggles and endure dust in their ready-to-eat meals.
“With all the dust coming in it’s hard to breathe,” said Spc. Gregory Pagan, 26, of Overbrook, Kan., riding in the back of a Humvee.