A large contingent of Iraq’s Republican Guard headed south under cover of blinding sandstorms in a 1,000-vehicle convoy Wednesday toward central Iraq — site of the heaviest fighting of the war. In Baghdad, Iraqi officials said two cruise missiles hit a residential area, killing 14 people.
In the far south, British forces fought on the fringes of the beleaguered city of Basra, where Iraqi militiamen also faced a local uprising. The first substantial relief convoy reached the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr after weathering a blinding sandstorm in its trip north from Kuwait.
Word of the Iraqi advance came as U.S. units in central Iraq appeared to be shifting their strategy because of the attacks from Iraqi militia. Instead of racing to Baghdad, some units were moving slower to clear out pockets of opposition.
“We’re going into a hunting mode right now,” said Lt. Col. B.T. McCoy of 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines. “We’re going to start hunting down instead of letting them take the cheap shots.”
Cobra pilots resupplying Marines in central Iraq cited military intelligence reports that columns of 3,000 Republican Guard troops were moving from Baghdad to the city of Kut, and 2,000 more were seen south of Kut.
“I don’t have a number, but we have seen reports of Republican Guards coming south in significant numbers, in strong and significant numbers,” said Navy Capt. Frank Thorp, a spokesman at U.S. Central Command in Qatar.
Thorp later said he was not referring to Republican Guards but Iraqi forces.
Coalition forces may find it difficult to attack the columns because sandstorms sweeping across Iraq for a second day have grounded helicopter flights throughout the area and significantly reduced the number of flights off carriers in the Persian Gulf and eastern Mediterranean.
The blinding storms also hampered resupply efforts. Most aircraft have been grounded since Tuesday morning, including helicopters bearing food, water and ammunition. Some helicopters that were able to fly on Wednesday picked up casualties.
The 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division was within striking distance of Baghdad but was stalled by the storms, said its commander, Col. Michael Linnington.
“We are one tank of fuel from Baghdad,” Linnington said. “The 101st is grounded and were not doing what we do best which is air assault operations and attacks. So we’re waiting for a weather break.”
President Bush, speaking at the headquarters of Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, said Republican Guard troops are under “direct and intense attack” from coalition forces.
“Day by day, Saddam Hussein is losing his grip on Iraq. Day by day, the Iraqi people are closer to freedom.”
The Iraqis, meanwhile, issued their first report of battlefield action by the Republican Guards. A military spokesman said a Guard special forces unit attacked coalition troops in south-central Iraq, destroying six armored vehicles and inflicting an unspecified number of casualties. There was no allied confirmation of such an attack.
Together, the reports appeared to signal that the Republican Guard, Saddam’s best trained and most loyal force, was still prepared to take the offensive despite days of allied air strikes and missile attacks.
The U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division drew to within 50 miles of Baghdad, west of where the Republican Guard was advancing. Other American forces were expected to join soon in squeezing the capital from several directions.
A military source said the U.S. Central Command now had evidence that the Iraqi regime had wired many of the bridges around Baghdad for destruction.
Iraqi officials said the U.S. missile attack in Baghdad killed 14 and injured 30 in the Al-Shaab neighborhood, an area crowded with apartments, auto repair shops and inexpensive restaurants. Associated Press Television News footage showed a large crater in the middle of a street, a child with a head bandage, and bodies wrapped in plastic sheeting in a pickup truck. Hundreds of people stood in front of a damaged building, some shaking fists in the air and shouting.
U.S. Central Command said it had no information about the incident.
“We don’t have a report that corroborates that, so I can’t confirm it,” said Brig. General Vincent Brooks. “We do everything physically and scientifically possible to be precise in our targeting.”
“Warfare is not a pretty or easy endeavor. Mistakes do happen. Weapons do malfunction. … If we make a mistake we admit it,” said Jim Wilkinson, a U.S. Central Command spokesman.
Brooks also accused the Iraqi government of using its own civilians as human shields for some its military units fighting against U.S. and British troops.
Asked about military conditions south of Baghdad, Brooks said “we’ve not seen any significant movement” in the area by the Republican Guard, although there has been some “survival positionings, but not serious attacks.”
Hoping to cripple the Iraqi government’s communications, the allies attacked the state television headquarters in Baghdad before dawn Wednesday with missiles and air strikes. The station’s international satellite signal was knocked off the air for a few hours.
Iraq’s information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, accused the U.S.-British coalition of striking civilian areas in several cities, notably An Nasiriyah, where he said more than 500 people were injured and 200 homes destroyed. Al-Sahhaf also contended that the allies did not have full control of Umm Qasr, where the food convoy arrived, and were holding only the dock area.
British forces on the edge of Basra waged artillery battles with more than 1,000 Iraqi militiamen, who reportedly also faced some sort of insurrection by Shiite Muslim civilians opposed to Saddam.
“Truthfully, the reports are confused, but we believe there was some limited form of uprising,” British Prime Minister Tony Blair told Parliament. “Once people know that Saddam’s grip on power is being weakened, then there is no doubt at all that they wish to opt for freedom rather than repression.”
British officers said the Basra uprising became enough of a threat that the militiamen fired mortars to try to suppress it. British forces then silenced the Iraqi mortar positions with an artillery barrage, spokesman Lt. Col. Ronnie McCourt said.
McCourt said British troops also were firing at some of the militiamen who were trying to flee Basra.
Iraqi officials have denied there was any uprising in Basra.
The British — while awaiting an opportune moment to enter the heart of Basra — used loudspeakers to say that aid is waiting outside the city. Relief officials say many of the 1.3 million residents are drinking contaminated water and face the threat of diarrhea and cholera.
Assigned to bring aid to another battle-scarred southern city, a seven-truck relief convoy — loaded with food and water — left Kuwait and reached the port of Umm Qasr on Wednesday.
A handful of Iraqi children watched the convoy cross into Iraqi territory. One boy, about 10, pointed to his mouth and shouted, “Eat, eat!”
Plans to bring supplies to Iraqi civilians have been stalled for days because of fighting across southern Iraq.
U.S. officials have blamed Saddam’s regime for slowing the flow of aid by placing mines in Umm Qasr’s harbor, which serves much of the south.