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U.S. and British forces slowed by sandstorm

Allies secure key southern port, capture Iraqi official

Sandstorms slowed U.S. and British forces to a crawl and thwarted air missions Tuesday as U.S.-led forces edged closer to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. In the south, British forces captured a senior Iraqi official and killed 20 fighters.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, providing an overview of the military campaign, said the coalition had secured a key southern port despite tenacious resistance and had much of the western desert in hand.

He said the allies launched air attacks on targets in the northern oil centers of Mosul and Kirkuk, as well as Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, and that troops were making advances in eastern Iraq to help defend two main bridges over the Euphrates.

British forces targeted a Baath Party headquarters in Az Zubayr near the southern city of Basra, capturing at least one Baath Party official and killing 20 Iraqi troops from irregular units, British military spokesman Col. Chris Vernon said.

Armed irregular units, with civilians in front of them, were firing at British forces outside of Basra, he said.

Sky News of Britain reported that rioting is taking place in Basra by locals opposed to Saddam Hussein.

Iraqi troops are reported to be firing on the rioters with mortars in an attempt to crush the uprising.

British forces are firing back at the Iraqi positions with heavy artillery, reports say.

They said they have dropped a bomb on the ruling Baath Party headquarters. Two large explosions have been heard in the city center.

Blair stressed that the final miles on the road to Baghdad would be the most challenging, as U.S. Army troops face the Medina division of Saddam's Republican Guard. "This will plainly be a crucial moment," he said.

The Army met sporadic resistance on its journey north. A report from the 3rd Infantry Division's headquarters estimated 500 Iraqis were killed during a two-day sweep past the holy Shiite city of Najaf, said Command Sgt. Maj. Kenneth Preston of the Army's V Corps. At least 20 U.S. troops have been killed and 14 captured or missing since the operation began.

President Bush, asking Congress for $74.7 billion to pay for six months of combat, said Tuesday that coalition forces are "on a steady advance" but said he could not predict how long the war will last.

Support for the ground troops advancing on Baghdad is increasingly becoming the focus of Navy air power, said Capt. Patrick Driscoll, commander of the more than 70-plane air wing aboard the USS Kitty Hawk.

U.S. officials said they believe Iraq is more likely to use chemical or biological weapons against coalition troops the closer they get to Baghdad. The Republican Guard controls the bulk of Iraq's chemical weaponry, most of which can be fired from artillery guns or short-range rocket launchers, according to U.S. officials.

Military analyst John Abrams, a retired Army four-star general, said the military option is going through a "major transition" from the initial entry into Iraq to the coming assault on Baghdad.

"You'll see efforts to reposition logistics forward, so lines of communication for forward elements are much shorter," Abrams told The Associated Press.

In other developments:

In a friendly fire incident, an American F-16 fired on a U.S. Patriot missile battery in Iraq after the battery's radar locked on the plane, the U.S. Central Command said Tuesday. No U.S. casualties were reported. The strike Monday was the war's second such incident involving Patriot batteries apparently failing to distinguish between friendly and hostile targets.

Coalition forces destroyed six satellite jamming devices, which Iraq was using to try to thwart American precision guided weapons, Air Force Maj. Gen. Victor Renuart said. He said the devices have had "no effect" on U.S. military operations.

Bad weather caused the military to call back combat missions from two aircraft carriers, and two Army divisions were virtually stalled in a vicious sandstorm that reduced visibility to a few feet.

Thousands of Marines trekking north toward Baghdad traveled only about 20 miles in five hours, buffeted by heavy winds and blowing sand. While Iraq often sees sandstorms in the spring, meteorologists said this one was exceptional.

Still, the Army's 3rd Infantry Division advanced to within 60 miles of Baghdad early Tuesday and pounded military installations with howitzers and rockets. U.S. warplanes and helicopters had come under heavy fire Monday during their first attacks on Republican Guard units.

In Monday's helicopter assault, the first known engagement in central Iraq, about 10 Iraqi tanks were destroyed. One Apache helicopter went down, and the Pentagon said two pilots had been taken prisoner — Chief Warrant Officer Ronald D. Young Jr., 26, of Lithia Springs, Ga., and Chief Warrant Officer David S. Williams, 30, of Orlando, Fla. Military officials later said they had destroyed the helicopter but did not say how.

In the south, a pattern of deadly ambushes and ruse attacks by Iraqi militiamen in civilian clothes have hampered the efforts of coalition forces, and sporadic fighting forced firefighters to withdraw from burning oil fields. British officials said Umm Qasr, Iraq's only deep-water port, was secure, though it could take several days before humanitarian aid deliveries begin because the waterway must be swept for mines.

British officials also said they would target pro-Saddam militiamen in Basra; coalition commanders had previously said they wanted to avoid urban combat there.

"Basra is surrounded and cannot be used as an Iraqi base," Blair said in a news conference Tuesday. "But in Basra there are pockets of Saddam's most fiercely loyal security services who are holding out. They are contained but still able to inflict casualties on our troops, and so we are proceeding with caution."

Heavy fighting continued in An Nasiriyah, considered a strategic prize because of its bridges across the Euphrates. Navy pilots pounded Iraqi artillery and ammunition posts about 45 miles northwest of Basra overnight into Tuesday morning, U.S. officials said. Two British soldiers were killed at Az Zubayr, an Iraqi navy port not far from Basra.

Troops advancing toward Baghdad said they were prepared for the fight ahead, despite news of fallen comrades.

"I think the deaths of Americans gives us more incentive to fight," said Lance Cpl. Chad Borgmann, 23, of Sidney, Neb., with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Force. "Freeing Iraq is all fine and dandy ... but this gives us a personal motivation to fight."