US Marines have engaged Iraqi forces in and around the town of Diwaniyah, killing up to 90 Iraqis and taking at least 20 prisoners, according to reports from the field.
Local residents told translators where to find the Baath Party headquarters and the military headquarters from which rocket-propelled grenades had been fired, said Captain Brian Lewis. of the 1st Tank Battalion.
Marines fired on both buildings, and on a military compound in a date palm grove outside the town.
Lewis, of Richmond, Washington, said 80 to 90 Iraqis were killed in the fighting.
The coalition forces also found a large ammunition dump that included 41 buildings and about 6000 mines.
Lewis said there was a whole building of rocket-propelled grenades stacked floor to ceiling.
It was too big to blow up, forcing an engineering unit to mull over how to dispose of it.
Elsewhere, American warplanes also hammered defensive positions south of Baghdad and dropped bombs on an Iraqi presidential yacht and another ship in the southern port of Basra, Navy officials said.
US warplanes had bombed the yacht, Al Mansur, a week ago, but it did not sink, said Lt. Cmdr. Mike Brown, a spokesman for the Kitty Hawk carrier battle group.
The ship was hit again with laser-guided bombs, but Brown said Kitty Hawk officials could not confirm if the boat was now sunk.
However, Captain Thomas A. Parker, the Kitty Hawk’s commander, said the yacht and the other ship in Basra’s port “were burning when they (the planes) left”.
A Patriot missile battery destroyed a missile fired from south of Baghdad at US forces in central Iraq, said Captain Pat Costello of the 101st Airborne Division.
A chemical alarm detector was set up to check whether any chemical weapons were used, but an official determination was not immediately made.
An Iraqi missile was also shot down by a Patriot missile battery before it reached Kuwait, the military said.
A Marine intelligence analyst said coalition forces had flown 18,000 sorties and cut back the Republican Guard by 50 per cent. The analyst said there was heavy bombing of Kut in southeastern Iraq to clear the way for ground forces.
Marine ground forces have also secured an airbase at Qalat Sukkar, southeast of Kut, that is expected to serve as a staging ground.
Around Diwaniyah, 120kms southeast of Baghdad, Marines came under fire from artillery and mortars. Hundreds of Iraqi fighters with rocket-propelled grenades and rifles were said to be inside the town.
Marine 155mm howitzers some distance away opened fire on Iraqi mortar positions, tanks and bunkers.
There were no reports of Marine casualties.
At least three Iraqis were wounded. Two Iraqi soldiers who had been shot in the legs were being treated with their hands bound behind their backs with silver duct tape, together with an older man who had been shot in the back and leg.
Diwaniyah is along one of three main south-north routes US forces are using to get to Baghdad.
Overnight, warplanes struck at Iraqi positions around Karbala and Hindiyah, about 80kms short of Baghdad, in an. effort to open the way for the invasion of the city.
US troops in the desert watched B-52s circle and drop bombs near Karbala, while dozens of cruise missiles left contrails as they flew overhead, heading toward Baghdad and Karbala.
“It’s nice to look up and know that everything up there is friendly,” said 1st Lt. Eric Hooper of Albany, Georgia. “It makes you feel a little better about rolling up that way.”
The bombing was in support of the Army’s V Corps and hit surface-to-air missile sites and a bridge across the Euphrates River, said Nicole Kratzer, a spokeswoman for the air wing of the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk.
Army forces have fought pitched battles at the Euphrates River town of Hindiyah against Republican Guards and other Iraqi loyalists.
After the battle, soldiers from A Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment rested, cleaning their weapons, listening to music and relaxing.
Lt. Col. Philip DeCamp, the battalion commander, said the troops should not assume that all battles would go as smoothly as that fight.
“We need to keep these guys from becoming complacent, thinking they can take anything the Iraqis throw at us,” he said.
DeCamp warned that the defenders south of Baghdad would have more powerful weapons, capable of penetrating the armour on US vehicles.