CAMP AS SAYLIYAH, Qatar – Iraqi paramilitary forces are seizing children and threatening Iraqi men with execution if they don't fight for the regime, U.S. and British officials said Thursday.
The U.S. commanders around the south-central city of Najaf reported the development to Gen. Tommy Franks, who is commanding forces in the Gulf, said U.S. Central Command spokesman Jim Wilkinson.
"Once again, we see the regime's terrorist tactics, where they bring the innocent onto the battlefield as they try to do anything to stay in power," he said.
At least 25 Marines from Camp Lejeune were injured during house-to-house fighting that began Wednesday night in Nasiriyah, according to a reporter embedded with the troops.
Keith Garvin, reporting live for WTVD early Thursday morning, said intelligence reports indicated 2,000 Iraqi troops were advancing on the camp, and a two-hour fight with missiles and artillery ensued, augmented by aerial bombing.
Garvin said some Iraqi fighters were using women as shields and had given guns to children.
"Unfortunately, some of the children have been firing at our Marines and our Marines have been forced to defend themselves," he said.
During a Central Command briefing Thursday, Brig. Gen. Vince Brooks accused the Iraqis of increasingly flagrant violations of international conventions. Iraqi security forces were seizing children in order to force their fathers to join the military, and were executing men who resisted, he said.
"They have executed prisoners of war ... They have used women and children as human shields and they have pretended to surrender and then opened fire," the Pentagon's No. 2 general, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, said. "I've never seen anything like this. It's disgusting."
British Group Capt. Al Lockwood said militiamen of the ruling Baath party were threatening families of Iraqi soldiers to force them into driving the military vehicles out of Basra.
"They are obviously coercing them into this action, whereas in fact we would have wished them to surrender," he said.
Central Command confirmed Wednesday that Iraqi fighters were using American military uniforms to commit acts against the Iraqi people and to "possibly attack U.S. forces."
U.S. troops have engaged in fierce firefights in and around Najaf in recent days as they have pressed north toward Baghdad.
British forces destroyed 14 Iraqi tanks that tried to break out of the southern city of Basra on Thursday morning, and one official said the tanks were manned by Iraqi soldiers whose families were threatened. This was the third column of Iraqi troops that the British have pummeled in the last 24 hours.
"They are being forced to fight by these militia. They are going into, apparently, people's homes, forcing the men to drive these vehicles to try and lead the escape out of Basra," Lockwood said.
Lockwood said the most recent behavior by the Iraqis showed the center no longer was holding.
"The enemy's options are now limited. They don't know what to do and they're guessing. It shows the command and control exercised by Baghdad has broken down. It's a suicidal approach which is irrational with no military logic to it. Military cohesion is sadly lacking."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.