A U.S. military official at Central Command forward headquarters told Reuters, ”This is the big battle.”
American defense officials said the fighting marked the first major ground combat between coalition and Republican Guard units.
U.S. and British aircraft have struck Iraqi positions for more than a week in Karbala, beginning with a massive assault by Apache helicopters on March 24.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said that battles near the Shiite holy city 68 miles southwest of Baghdad would be the beginning of the difficult part of the ground campaign.
“Republican Guard groups are … where the difficult task begins,” Rumsfeld told reporters a week ago. “And it is starting with the Medina Division south of Karbala.”
American officials had said they felt the week of air strikes and artillery attacks had degraded the Medina Division by nearly 50 percent.
“The Medina Division, which is near Karbala, has been badly damaged,” Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the NewsHour on Monday. “The Nebuchadnezzar Division, which we’re told is moving some of its forces down South to help fill some of the holes, is being badly damaged. We are going to continue to drop weapons on these units until they either surrender or until they are destroyed.”
Despite the massive bombing campaign, regional experts said the Republican Guard are still considered the best trained and equipped divisions of the Iraqi military.
“They’re tough, brave, and their history has been relatively successful within the context of Iraq’s rather miserable military performance,” Harlan Ullman, senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the San Francisco Chronicle.
“We’re going to beat the hell out of them from the air, and then the survivors are going to get hit by combat tanks. It will be an unfair fight, but that doesn’t mean they won’t resist fiercely,” he added.
Embedded journalists with U.S. 3rd Infantry and Marine expeditionary forces said the units they have been traveling with have begun to move north again after several days of a so-called “operational” pause.
Asked by a Reuters reporter if the fighting represented a new push toward the Iraqi capital, a Central Command official said: “It well could be.”