Coalition Forces Advance on Basra, Fight "Major" Tank Battle
Early Saturday afternoon, the BBC published reports that the forces had taken the southern city but were continuing to battle sporadic opposition in parts of Basra.
“The BBC’s David Willis says U.S. and U.K. forces are now confident they have taken control of Iraq’s second city, Basra,” The BBC’s Web site reported at 1 p.m. local time (8 a.m. EST). “He said hundreds of young Iraqi men applauded allied troops as they entered Basra, and that hundreds of soldiers have surrendered.”
Two hours earlier, British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said the coalition was making progress in the region, but would not comment on when Basra might be taken.
“I really do not think it is sensible to talk in terms of a time scale,” British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon told a briefing in London. “I am not in the prediction business.”
Hoon added that regular Iraqi forces have withdrawn from Basra but elements of Saddam Hussein’s security forces were continuing to resist.
As reports were emerging of the possible capture of the city of 1.5 million, U.S. Marines were saying a sizeable tank battle was raging on the outskirts of Basra.
“We are attacking Iraqi forces, all of which are west of Basra,” Captain Andrew Bergen told reporters. “I would certainly say it’s a major battle.”
U.S. forces captured the airport on the north side of Basra after encountering resistance from Iraqi troops in armored personnel carriers, said Marine Lt. Eric Gentrup.
“There was a decent amount of resistance,” Gentrup told the Associated Press.
Reporters traveling with the Marines and British forces, said Iraqi security troops were fighting within the city, firing mortars and heavy machine guns on advancing coalition forces.
American and British jets and attack helicopters tore through the air, targeting tanks and mortar positions on the western outskirts of the largely Shia Muslim city.
The fighting followed the largest single surrender by Iraqi forces early Saturday local time. The 51st division, which was reportedly one of the best-equipped in Iraq’s regular army forces, laid down its arms to coalition forces advancing toward Basra. The 51st was composed of some 8,000 troops.
Later Saturday, Britain’s Defense Chief of Staff Michael Boyce said, “many thousands of prisoners-of-war” had been rounded up in the area.