'The toughest day'


WASHINGTON - In the worst day of casualties for U.S. forces trying to overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime, at least 16 Americans were killed, and five were taken prisoner in battles in southern Iraq yesterday.

The fast-moving U.S. invasion army, which military leaders said was advancing ahead of schedule, drove near the outskirts of Baghdad. But behind the front lines, the bloodiest combat of the war raged.

"It's the toughest day of resistance that we've had thus far," said Lt. Gen. John Abizaid at U.S. Central Command in Qatar. He denied, however, that the intensifying opposition by Iraq meant that the war was turning out to be more difficult than U.S. planners had expected.

Iraqi officials were quoted on Al-Jazeera, the Arab TV station, as saying that their troops were falling back to allow American forces to become overextended, then attacking behind U.S. lines.

Separately, two British airmen were killed in a deadly case of friendly fire when a U.S. Patriot missile battery downed their Tornado jet fighter near the Iraq-Kuwait border. Officials said the plane's transponder, designed to identify it as an allied aircraft, may have failed to work properly. And two British soldiers were missing after coming under attack in southern Iraq, Britain's Ministry of Defense said.

It was a day of mistakes, of ambush and of deception, a day that confronted Americans with the cost of war.

In what U.S. officials called a tragic error, about two dozen American soldiers were attacked after their convoy of six vehicles made a wrong turn near An Nasiriyah, a Euphrates River town about 230 miles southeast of Baghdad. The soldiers were members of the 507th Maintenance Company from Fort Bliss, Texas.

About 10 Americans, including four who were wounded, were rescued by Marines. Seven others were reported killed, and five, including at least one woman, were taken prisoner. There were reports that three others were missing.

The bodies of four of the Americans were shown on Iraqi television and Al-Jazeera. Videotape of five American prisoners being interrogated on camera was aired on TV networks around the world.

"I don't think that these pictures will damage either the psychology of our soldiers, morale of our soldiers, or the steadfastness of our government or the resolve of our people," Abizaid said. "We're a pretty tough people." But the general and other American officials reacted with outrage to the graphic images.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld called the taping a violation of the Geneva Conventions, which say prisoners of war are to be protected from public curiosity.

President Bush, returning from two nights at Camp David in the Maryland mountains, issued a plea on behalf of the prisoners. "We expect them to be treated humanely, just like we'll treat any prisoners of theirs that we capture," he told reporters on the South Lawn of the White House.

"If not, the people who mistreat the prisoners will be treated as war criminals," the president added.

In one incident, Iraqis waved a flag of surrender at advancing U.S. Marines, then shelled them with artillery. In another, Iraqi troops dressed in civilian clothes and driving commercial vehicles attacked U.S. soldiers.

In An Nasiriyah, scene of the deadly ambush and of pitched battles between American and Iraqi troops, up to nine U.S. Marines were killed. U.S. commanders described the fighting there as the most brutal engagement in the war.

American officials, from Bush on down, tried to use the latest turn of events in Iraq to lower public optimism that the war would be quick and bloodless.

"It's important for the American people to realize that this war has just begun," Bush said.

Referring to round-the-clock TV coverage from the Persian Gulf, which has brought the war home in an unprecedented fashion, Bush said the first five days of the war "may seem like a long time because of all the action on TV."

"But," he cautioned, "we're just in the beginning phases."

"Clearly, they are not a beaten force," said Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "This is going to get a lot harder."

Last night, in a foreshadowing of the fighting, Army attack helicopters and Army ATAMCS surface missiles took on Iraq's fearsome Republican Guards, deployed in a ring around Baghdad. Their mission was to soften up the Medina division. During the attack, one pilot was wounded by small arms fire but managed to fly back to safety.

Lt. Gen. Sultan Hashim Ahmed, Iraq's defense minister, said on state television that he was confident his forces could keep the capital from falling into American hands.

"If they want to take Baghdad, they will have to pay a heavy price," he said.

The whereabouts of Hussein and senior members of his regime continued to be a mystery. The official state news agency said he met with his top advisers yesterday.

American officials continued to say that they did not know whether Hussein was dead or alive or had been wounded in last week's U.S. strike on his bunker in southeast Baghdad.

Across Iraq, U.S. ships and aircraft were continuing to attack targets with precision-guided bombs and missiles. Among the areas struck were Baghdad and several key northern cities, including Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.

The first waves of U.S. ground troops were airlifted into northern Iraq as American-led forces prepared to gain control of the valuable Kirkuk oil fields, where unconfirmed reports said some wells are burning. Republican Guard units near Kirkuk were among the targets hit by U.S. bombs over the past two days.

American officials continued to watch Turkish troop movements warily. The refusal of Turkey's government to allow 62,000 U.S. soldiers to move through its country into northern Iraq has delayed the deployment of American ground forces in that area.

As a result, U.S. military leaders are expected to rely on Kurdish fighters in at least the early stages of the northern ground offensive. That could prompt a reaction from Turkey, which wants to head off any attempt to establish a Kurdish state on its eastern border.

Bush told reporters that his administration is "making it very clear to the Turks that we expect them not to come into northern Iraq." But some Turkish troops are already in Iraq, and there are reports that U.S. officials may agree to allow them to deploy soldiers in a 12-mile buffer zone inside northern Iraq.

In western Iraq, U.S. forces searched for evidence of chemical weapons and banned Scud missiles, which could reach Israel and invite a response that could widen the war. U.S. officials expressed optimism that they may have prevented Scud attacks, though they said they could not rule out the possibility that some launchers might still be in the area.

Military officials declined to confirm a report in the Jerusalem Post that elements of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division and U.S. special operations forces had seized a chemical weapons facility in Iraq. Thus far, no evidence of chemical or biological weapons has been discovered, they added.

But Myers, the Joint Chiefs chairman, said on ABC, in response to a question about whether biological or chemical weapons had been found, that a "huge arms cache ... and some documentation" was discovered after a firefight in western Iraq and was being evaluated.

The Pentagon did not release precise casualty figures from yesterday's fighting, but dozens of Americans were either killed, wounded or missing. The number of Americans dead yesterday alone appears to have been greater than the total of eight killed in the first four days of the war.

U.S. and British forces also came under intense fire in towns near the gulf coast, which American military officials had earlier said were under allied control. Officials now say it will take "a long time" before those cities will be fully under the control of U.S. and British forces.

Despite skirmishes in the port cities, Bush said humanitarian aid would begin flowing into those areas by tomorrow. "We're slowly but surely taking control," he said.

Military officials now believe that special guerrilla units of Republican Guard and members of Hussein's special security organization have infiltrated many of the areas that U.S. troops have moved through on their way to Baghdad. Others may belong to his Martyrs brigade under the direction of his son, Odai.

Now that the Iraqis have sprung deadly surprises on American forces over the past few days, officials said U.S. troops would be much more cautious.

American tanks and armored vehicles continued to rumble down the Baghdad highway, and Rumsfeld said the fast-advancing ground troops were "ahead of plan." A British general said the fight for Baghdad could begin as early as tomorrow.

Specially trained American well-firefighters were expected to enter the Rumaila oil fields near the gulf coast, where about 10 wells were blazing out of control. It could take weeks to extinguish all of the fires, but the damage was not nearly as great as many had expected before the start of the war.

U.S. officials acknowledged that fewer Iraqi soldiers have surrendered than in the first gulf war, which lasted only five days. They said this wasn't an indication that Iraq's troops would be more difficult to defeat this time, however.

They said that many Iraqi soldiers have laid down their arms and melted back into the civilian population. In the 1991 war, "they were far away from home. They had nowhere to melt back to," said Abizaid.

About 2,000 Iraqi soldiers have been taken prisoner, officials said. Hundreds of others have been allowed to return to their homes.

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