AN NASIRIYAH, Iraq - As Marines battled their way into the heart of this city yesterday, they appeared to be stepping into just the sort of urban imbroglio they had long been hoping to avoid.
After heavy fighting on Sunday, in which at least nine Marines were killed near here, the battle that unfolded yesterday had all the hallmarks of a confused and chaotic urban shootout. Helicopter gunships rocketed the city from above, and residents said the raids had killed and injured scores of civilians. Their assertions were impossible to verify in the chaos of the fighting.
The Marines countered that the Iraqis were using civilians as shields, pushing women and children into the streets. Iraqi fighters, the Marines said, were leaping out of buses and taxis to shoot at them.
The fighting continued until sunset, with the Marines appearing to gain control of part of the city center after taking an unknown number of casualties.
Nasiriyah spans the Euphrates River in southern Iraq. The military covets the spot not for the city itself, but for a pair of bridges that could help U.S. forces move north to Baghdad. It was apparently to ensure the security of this vital strategic area that the Marines moved into the city.
American commanders had hoped for different scenes in Iraqi towns, which, at least in the south, had been widely expected to welcome the allied invasion. For U.S. military planners, winning the war means destroying the Baghdad government, but it also includes a concerted effort to avoid the kind of urban fighting that might enrage the Iraqi people.
"No Iraqi will support what the Americans are doing here," said a Nasiriyah resident named Nawaf, who stood at a U.S. checkpoint on the city limits yesterday. "If they want to go to Baghdad, that's one thing, but now they have come into our cities, and all Iraqis will fight them."
Nawaf and other Nasiriyah residents said in interviews yesterday that U.S. bombs dropped on the city in the morning had killed 10 civilians and injured as many as 200.
Some conceded that loyalists to President Saddam Hussein had operated bases inside the city. But many residents, including those who said they oppose Hussein, were outraged at the arrival of U.S. troops in their city.
A U.S. commander engaged in the battle for the city said he could not discount the possibility that Iraqi civilians had been killed.
Col. Glenn Starnes, commander of an artillery battalion firing on Nasiriyah, placed responsibility for any civilian deaths on the Iraqi soldiers who drew the Marines into the populated areas.
"We will engage the enemy wherever he is," Starnes said.
The battle began Sunday when U.S. troops ran into heavy fire from Iraqi soldiers. The fighting left at least nine Marines dead, in addition to several members of an Army maintenance unit thought to have been killed nearby in an ambush earlier in the day.
Yesterday, the Marines said they had begun to gain the upper hand, as the steady bombardment from artillery and air power enabled them to move toward the city's northern end.
Despite the progress, the Marines said that as many as 400 Iraqi fighters remained inside the city. But that estimate seemed sketchy at best; the Americans complained that they were having trouble distinguishing between civilians and combatants.
"It's not pretty," Chief Warrant Officer Pat Woellhof said. "It's not surgical.
"You try to limit collateral damage, but they want to fight. Now it's just smash-mouth football."
The fighting enraged at least one Iraqi who had been inclined to support the U.S. effort to oust Hussein.
The man, Mustafa Muhammad Ali, is a medical assistant at the Saddam Hospital in Nasiriyah. He said he spent much of the morning hauling dead and wounded civilians out of buildings that had been bombed by the Americans. He added that he had no love for the Iraqi president, but said the American failure to discriminate between enemy fighters and Iraqi civilians had turned him decisively against the invasion.
"I saw how the Americans bombed our civilians with my own eyes," Ali said, and he held up a bloodied sleeve to show how he had dragged them into the ambulances.
"You want to overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime?" he asked. "Go to Baghdad. What are you doing here?"