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U.S. Begins Probing Attacks On Republican Guard Troops

By Patrick E. Tyler

THE NEW YORK TIMES -- KUWAIT CITY, KUWAIT

U.S. Marine and Army infantry units arrayed along a broad front south of Baghdad on Sunday made their first probing attacks against the Republican Guard division at Karbala, 67 miles from the capital, after a week of heavy aerial bombardment on the Iraqi forces that guard the approaches to Saddam Hussein’s stronghold.

In Baghdad, another round of airstrikes began early Monday morning.

Bombing also continued on the city’s southern outskirts where at least two Republican Guard divisions are deployed, the 5,000 member 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division wheeled its armored columns north from the region around Najaf, 100 miles south of the capital, to begin engaging them.

The probing attacks were not the opening act of the battle for Baghdad, but were nonetheless intended to shape the coming battle and reestablish allied momentum. American commanders have made no secret of their determination to keep the pressure on Saddam.

“We just want to maintain the initiative,” said Maj. Michael G. Birmingham, spokesman for the 3rd Infantry. “We don’t want to dig in our heels here.”

Momentum has been stalled in recent days by fierce attacks on allied supply lines. This has led to recriminations over whether allied commanders misjudged the willingness of Saddam’s loyalists to resist and underestimated the size of the armed force needed to subdue them.

The American commander in the region, Gen. Tommy R. Franks, spoke publicly on Sunday in defense of his war plan, as did two of his superiors, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Franks said that his war strategy was being misperceived by “pundits” who believe “we are in an operational pause.”

“It’s simply not the case,” Franks said Sunday at his headquarters in Doha, Qatar. “There is a continuity of operations in this plan. That continuity has been seen. It will be seen in the days ahead.”

While there was no sign of any crumbling of Saddam’s government, which vowed a wave of suicide bombings against U.S. troops, there appeared to be some momentum on Sunday for the allied forces. To the east, thousands of soldiers from the 1st Marine Division moved north from their static lines to engage Iraqi forces in towns along the highway approach to Baghdad, military officials said.

Early Sunday, Royal Marine commandos captured an Iraqi general and killed a Republican Guard colonel believed to be directing irregular forces that have fired on civilians trying to flee the city.

But the day was not without casualties. A Marine UH-1 Huey helicopter crashed in southern Iraq at a refueling station, killing three U.S. crewmen, a military spokesman said.

A British soldier was killed in fighting near Basra, 340 miles from Baghdad, and several others were injured, the Defense Ministry in London said.