Huge Firefight Rocks Diwaniyah

Battlefield action shifted eastward Tuesday across the fabled Euphrates River, with U.S. Marines killing at least 80 Iraqi soldiers and taking more than 40 prisoners in an eight-hour battle that saw Iraqis firing "from everything" -- from buildings, from dugouts, from holes, from behind buses.

"You name it, they were there," said Cpl. Patrick Irish of Grants Pass, Ore.

The battle on the outskirts of Diwaniyah took place on one of three south-north routes that coalition forces are using as they approach the ultimate prize: Baghdad, 75 miles to the north.

Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 4th Regiment 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 miles away opened fire on Iraqi mortar positions, tanks and bunkers. The battle lasted until 3 p.m.

The Marines killed 80-90 Iraqi fighters, said Lt. Col. B.P. McCoy, and took 44 POWs -- among them a few officers from Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard, recognizable by their red boots. No Marine losses were reported.

McCoy used an analogy to describe the day's mission, saying his men were like fishermen throwing bait into the water.

"It was a chumming mission," he said. "We threw some chum in the water and saw what came up."

"The Iraqis were pretty determined," he added "We hammered them pretty hard."

West of the Euphrates, meanwhile, troops of the 3rd Infantry Division rested, having pulled back from Monday's probing mission across the river.

And about 75 miles east southeast of Diwaniyah, in the area of Qalat Sukkar, a third armed thrust to Baghdad was taking shape. Elements of the 1st Marine Division looked north to Al Kut, a city of about 400,000 where Iraqi forces were known to be deployed.

Earlier in the week, a journalist with The (Biloxi, Miss.) Sun Herald reported that the 1st Marines were welcomed as "liberators" in Qalat Sukkar, where they secured an important air base and townspeople led them to a huge cache of weapons. At the time, U.S. troops reported finding four rooms filled with small arms, including mortars, more than 100 AK-47 assault rifles, and three anti-aircraft missiles.

From the air, meanwhile, U.S. forces unleashed a ferocious barrage late Tuesday on positions of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard around Karbala, pounding them with Tomahawk cruise missiles, artillery and B-52 bombers.

U.S. troops deployed outside the city could hear the thunderous detonations as flashes from the blasts illuminated Karbala, some 50 miles south of Baghdad.

At Diwaniyah, Cpl. Irish described the Iraqi fighters as "shooting from buildings, from dugout positions, from holes, from everything. They would jump out to shoot. They were behind buses -- you name it, they were there."

Other Iraqi fighters, though, turned back and ran.

"It looks like a lot of them saw what was coming and changed their mind," said Sgt. James Mares of Chalfont, Pa. "It's just a matter of putting down enough fire until they ran. They died, or decided to give up."

For their prisoners, the Marines bulldozed a pit and put barbed wire around it. To get a prisoner inside, a Marine would pin down the man's feet with his own foot; others would pin down the prisoner's arms, and another would point an M-16 at the prisoner's head. Some POWS were taken away by truck.

Though they fought mostly outside the town, the Marines did enter a few blocks into Diwaniyah; locals told their translators where to find the ruling Baath party headquarters and also the military headquarters that had been the source of rocket-propelled grenade fire. The Marines fired on both buildings, and also targeted a military compound in a date palm grove outside the town.

An engineering unit was trying to decide how to dispose of a huge ammunition dump found Monday. The dump held about 6,000 mines, stacked like checkers. RPG rounds were stacked floor to ceiling in one of the some 41 buildings, said Capt. Brian Lewis, of Richmond, Wash.

In southern Iraq, Marines of the 15th Expeditionary Unit's Echo Company captured a police compound Tuesday evening on the outskirts of Nasiriyah, part of an intense push to gain final control of the key southern city.

The Marines seized the huge, walled compound without any resistance: The site had been abandoned -- a sign that Iraq's stiff resistance in the area may be faltering.

Associated Press reporter Doug Mellgren reported that a column of amphibious assault vehicles slowly rolled up to the compound under a dark, moonless sky dotted with stars. The calm was suddenly interrupted when the Marines opened fire on the guard towers that ring the compound. Illumination rounds flashed in the sky to make the targets more visible.

It was the first time some of the troops had fired their weapons.

"Firing at Iraq? It was nice," said Sgt. Robert Renfrow, 28, of Lake Stevens, Wash., who manned a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on an amphibious assault vehicle. Artillery fire pounded the compound, and small grenades were used to knock down the wall that protected it.

Wearing night vision goggles, Marines went from building to building, checking windows and doors to ferret out any hostile Iraqi forces. Two Iraqis were detained.

Also in the south, British troops guarding a key bridge outside of Basra exchanged fire with forces inside the city. Dressed in full combat gear, British forces responded to two mortar attacks, one in the morning and another in midafternoon.

Hundreds of civilians continued to stream out of the city across the bridge, with pickup trucks and automobiles full of personal belongings, food and even livestock. But the exodus had slowed from previous days.