The battle for Basra

THE battle for Basra was underway today as British and American troops advanced on Iraqi’s second city.

Coalition forces were involved in what was described as a major battle after United States Marine tanks engaged Saddam Hussein’s forces on the western outskirts of the city.

The attack by US forces on Basra was supported by two battlegroups of the British 7th Armoured Brigade - the Desert Rats - the Black Watch and the 1st Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.

"We are attacking Iraqi forces, all of which are west of Basra," US Captain Andrew Bergen said. "I would certainly say it’s a major battle." Units had travelled up the main road from the Kuwaiti border - dubbed the "Highway of Death" in the 1991 Gulf War when an Iraqi military convoy on it was wiped out by Allied air strikes. As the British and US

soldiers advanced today, they passed abandoned concrete Iraqi military barracks with white flags fluttering from their roofs and burnt-out military vehicles beside them.

Bedraggled Iraqi civilians stared at them blankly, with some children motioning with their hands to their mouths.

An entire Iraqi division, the 51st Infantry, gave up yesterday.

A key unit for Basra’s defence with 8,000 men and up to 200 tanks, it was the largest defection in a day when Saddam Hussein’s forces showed signs of crumbling.

In addition Saddam’s 25th Mechanised Brigade, of the 6th Armoured Division, gave itself up to US forces just to the south west of the city overnight. The brigade has up to 8000 men in it but it was not clear on how large a scale the surrender was.

Iraqi officials have denied the reports despite verification by eyewitnesses, but the regime gave no clear sign of quitting.

Asked whether the Iraqis were planning a counterattack, Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf said: "Our leadership and our armed forces will decide this, in what guarantees the defeat of those mercenaries, God willing."

"This criminal in the White House is a stupid criminal," he added.

The Iraqi regime released a video of Saddam in his uniform holding a meeting with his son Qusai, the commander of the Republican Guard, and Defence Minister General Sultan Hashim Ahmad, but it was unclear when it was made.

Whether or not Saddam was alive, American intelligence officials said the Iraqi command and control system was in disarray, and US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said: "The regime is starting to lose control of their country."

Meanwhile, seven more British servicemen died in the Gulf today after two Royal Navy Sea King helicopters collided over international waters.

The Sea King Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft went down at around 4.30am local time (1.30am GMT), a day after eight British commandos and four US crew died when a US Marine CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter crashed in northern Kuwait.

Both crashes were not the result of enemy action.

The crash came as British and US forces continued their devastating "shock and awe" tactics against Iraq, pummelling the capital Baghdad with a renewed wave of missile attacks.

After a night in which key targets in the city were bombarded in a major escalation of military action, a further three missiles were said to have hit the city at dawn, according to Arabic satellite broadcaster Al-Jazeera.

Fighting was also ongoing in the strategic port city of Umm Qasr. Despite earlier reports that the port had been taken small pockets of Iraqi troops were continuing to fight on. They were being targeted by American helicopters.

The Marines said American and British troops had taken between 400 and 450 Iraqi prisoners in fighting around the strategic port and the nearby Faw peninsula, which controls access from the Gulf.

"For the most part, whatever resistance was here, has pretty much either been eliminated or is on the run," Colonel Thomas Waldhauser, Commanding officer of the 15th Marine expeditionary unit, said in Umm Qasr.

But he added there was still a "little bit" of resistance around the old port. US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday that US and British forces had captured Umm Qasr.

In a separate development, around 1000 Turkish troops crossed the border into northern Iraq, angering Washington and alarming the local Kurdish population.

The US strongly opposes any unilateral move by Turkey into northern Iraq.

The advance deep into Iraq was being followed up by massive troop movements.

At the Kuwait border, the rest of the Allied force was caught in a massive traffic jam. Hundreds of tanks, armoured personnel carriers, Humvees and trucks waited in columns up to 70 vehicles long to pass into Iraq. At the same time, the US Army’s 3rd Infantry Division surged 100 miles into Iraq, moving in the desert parallel to the Euphrates river.

It avoided the populated river valley and flanked Iraqi units, going straight for the Republican Guard around Baghdad. The Army’s 101st Airborne Division also joined the fight.

From among the convoy heading north along Highway 80, orange flames could be seen shooting from two major oil pipelines that were on fire. Cobra attack helicopters flew overhead, making their way through the heavy clouds of smoke. Some distance away, a third pipeline was on fire.

There were pockets of resistance, some of it stiff, with Iraqis fighting with small arms, pistols, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. A second combat death was reported yesterday: a member of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force who was wounded while fighting a platoon of Iraqi infantry. Meanwhile, Australian special forces, who have been operating deep inside Iraq, destroyed a command and control post and killed a number of soldiers, according to the country’s defence chief, General Peter Cosgrove. But often, the opponent advanced with a white flag in hand, instead of a rifle.

The surrendering soldiers were not the fabled and well-fed Republican Guard. For the most part, these were a rag-tag army, many of them draftees, often in T-shirts.

"A lot of them looked hungry. They haven’t been fed in a while," said one US military official.

Within a few hours of crossing into southern Iraq, the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit encountered 200 or more Iraqi troops seeking to surrender.

Another group of Iraq soldiers next to a road waved a white flag and their hands, desperately trying to flag down a group of journalists so they could surrender.

Forty to 50 Iraqi soldiers surrendered to a Marine traffic control unit.

They came down the road in the open back of a troop vehicle, their hands in the air for about a mile before they reached the Marines.

Lieutenant Commander Mark Johnson, a pilot returning to the USS Kitty Hawk from a mission over southern Iraq, said it appeared the Iraqi forces were withdrawing in front of advancing Allied forces.

He could see columns of Marines moving, but "there was nobody coming south to meet them."

Time and again, he said, he was told to ignore targets like missile launch sites because US troops had passed without any opposition.

"As it turned out, there was nobody to drop bombs on tonight," Johnson said. "It was simply because we had already taken that land," he said. "There was no need to bomb any more."

There was continued speculation today over the fate of Saddam with both British and US government spokesmen unable to confirm reports that he had been injured or even killed. Al Jazeera reported: "Baghdad is burning. What more can we say?"

Two hours later, the sound of coalition warplanes was heard over the city for the first time in the current conflict, although coalition commanders were keen to stress that the "deliberate escalation" of the campaign was aimed at specific targets of Saddam’s regime.

The northern cities of Mosul, Tikrit and Kirkuk were also reported to have come under attack in the bombardment intended to paralyse the Iraqi military and force Saddam’s forces to submit.

US Rear Admiral Matthew Moffit, commander of the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk battle group in the Gulf, said that 320 cruise missiles were launched in the first wave against targets in and around Baghdad.

They included missiles launched from the Royal Navy nuclear-powered submarines, HMS Splendid and HMS Turbulent.