WASHINGTON – American ground troops are battling Republican Guard troops around Karbala, a holy Shiite Muslim city about 50 miles south of Baghdad, defense officials said Tuesday.
Heavy fighting raged as U.S. Army units battled parts of the Medina Division of the Republican Guard, Iraq’s best trained and equipped forces.
Earlier Tuesday, Tomahawk cruise missiles and airstrikes had pounded Medina Division positions near Karbala. The Pentagon’s top general, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard Myers, said Tuesday the Medina Division had been damaged below 50 percent of its original fighting strength.
The action in Karbala marked the first major ground battle with Republican Guard troops, the major forces guarding the approaches to the Iraqi capital. Myers and other military leaders have said the Republican Guard would have to be eliminated before coalition ground troops move on Baghdad and the center of Saddam Hussein’s government.
Airstrikes, artillery barrages and scattered firefights with armed reconnaissance units have pounded Republican Guard units to the south, west and north of Baghdad for more than a week.
Military officials said the Republican Guard’s Baghdad division, centered around the city of Kut southeast of Baghdad, also has been damaged to less than half its initial capacity. U.S. Marine forces fought in the Kut area Tuesday.
Myers said elements of two of Iraq’s northernmost Republican Guard divisions — the Adnan and Nebuchadnezzar — had moved south toward Baghdad, apparently to reinforce the southern units coming under punishing attack from above.