Iraq used ambushes and even fake surrenders to kill or capture up to 21 American troops on Sunday, inflicting the first significant casualties on the allied forces driving toward Baghdad. U.S. war leaders declared the invasion on target despite the bloody setbacks.
Up to nine Marines died and a dozen U.S. soldiers were taken prisoner in surprise engagements with Iraqis at An Nasiriyah, a southern city far from the forward positions of the allied force.
On the third day of the ground war, any expectation that Iraqi defenders would simply fold was gone.
“Clearly they are not a beaten force,” said Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “This is going to get a lot harder.”
Even so, the U.S.-British coalition fought to within 100 miles of Baghdad and tended to a growing northern front.
And at the end of a day filled with plenty of bad news for allied forces, U.S. officials said troops had made what could be an important discovery: a suspected chemical factory near the city of Najaf. U.S. Central Command said troops were examining several “sites of interest,” but that it was premature to call the Najaf facility a chemical weapons factory.
Early Monday, Baghdad was bombarded with what appeared to be its strongest airstrikes since Friday, even as a mosque blared “God is great” and “Thanks be to God,” perhaps to boost Iraqis’ morale.
Allied soldiers came under attack in a series of ruses Sunday, U.S. officials said, with one group of Iraqis waving the white flag of surrender, then opening up with artillery fire. Another group appearing to welcome coalition troops but then attacking them.
Lt. Gen. John Abizaid of U.S. Central Command said a faked surrender near An Nasiriyah, a crossing point over the Euphrates River northwest of Basra, set off the “sharpest engagement of the war thus far.” Up to nine Marines died before the Americans prevailed, he said.
Twelve U.S. soldiers were missing and presumed captured by Iraqis in an ambush on an army supply convoy at An Nasiriyah, Central Command said.
“We, of course, will be much more cautious in the way that we view the battlefield as a result of some of these incidents,” Abizaid said.
Arab television showed what it said were four American dead in an Iraqi morgue and at least five other Americans identified as captured soldiers.
“I come to shoot only if I am shot at,” said one prisoner, who said he was from Kansas. Asked why he was fighting Iraqis, he replied: “They don’t bother me; I don’t bother them.”
Some of the missing prisoners were from Fort Bliss, Texas, said Jean Offutt, an Army spokeswoman at the base, where families members gathered Sunday night.
“The mood, of course, is very tragic,” she said.
U.S. and British officials said some of the stiffest resistance was coming from paramilitary forces known as the Fedayeen Saddam and from Saddam Hussein’s personal security forces.
“These are men who know that they will have no role in the building of a new Iraq and they have no future,” said Peter Wall, chief of staff to the British military contingent in the U.S.-led coalition.
President Bush kept his eye on the big prize — the removal of Saddam’s government and Iraq’s eventual disarmament.
“I know that Saddam Hussein is losing control of his country,” Bush said upon his return from the Camp David retreat in Maryland. “We are slowly but surely achieving our objective.” He demanded that U.S. prisoners of war be treated humanely.
At a subdued Academy Awards show in Los Angeles, filmmaker Michael Moore used his Oscar acceptance speech to protest the war and declare, “Shame on you, Mr. Bush.” He drew a mix of boos and applause from the crowd.
With allies closing in, Iraqi leaders appealed for a united Arab front to condemn the invasion but knew they wouldn’t get it. “There is no hope in these rulers,” Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan said.
But Russia and Chinese foreign ministers reasserted their view that the invasion has no legal basis and asked for an immediate halt.
The State Department, for its part, protested that Russian companies sold sensitive military equipment to Iraq in the buildup to the war, maintaining some of the equipment could pose a direct threat to coalition forces.
A British warplane was shot down in a friendly fire attack by U.S. Patriot missiles, killing its crew of two, and a grenade attack in an Army base in Kuwait left a captain dead and a U.S. soldier as the suspect.
In addition, two British soldiers were missing after coming under attack in southern Iraq, British defense officials said Monday.
In the most notable gain for the coalition, soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade moved 230 miles in 40 hours, killing scores of Iraqi militiamen who engaged them with machine guns, to take positions less than a day’s journey from Baghdad.
The brigade raced day and night across rugged desert in more than 70 tanks and 60 Bradley fighting vehicles. No American injuries were reported in that battle.
Iraqi Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Sultan Hashim Ahmed expressed confidence his troops can hold the capital.
“If they want to take Baghdad they will have to pay a heavy price,” he said.