U.S. officials reacted angrily Tuesday to criticism of the military campaign against Iraq, as the coalition forces they say are poised to seize Baghdad were engaged in one of the largest firefights of the conflict so far.
Elements of the 7th Calvary Regiment southeast of Najaf were attacked by Iraqi forces on foot in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Iraqi time, Pentagon officials told United Press International. It was unclear whether the attackers -- who used small arms and rocket-propelled grenades -- were regular troops or part of the Fedayeen militia. Officials said the U.S. force killed between 200 and 300 Iraqis.
Reports from embedded journalists said vehicles were damaged, but there were no reports of allied casualties.
There was no sign that the engagement -- thought to be one of the largest since fighting began -- was the beginning of the final push to Baghdad, which stalled Tuesday in part because of a howling sandstorm.
But U.S. officials dismissed suggestions that the assault had bogged down, saying the war is going well.
"It's a plan that's on track. It's a plan everybody had input to. It's a plan everybody agrees to," Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers said Tuesday at a Pentagon briefing. "I've been on public record that I think the plan as finally formulated ... is a brilliant plan. And we've been at it now for less than a week. We're just about to Baghdad."
President George W. Bush, appearing at the Pentagon earlier in the day to propose a $75 billion war budget, struck the same theme.
"We're making good progress," Bush said, despite a sandstorm that brought the march of U.S. troops and equipment to a virtual halt Tuesday 50 miles south of the capital, and despite an anticipated showdown with Saddam Hussein's fierce Republican Guards.
"We're fighting an enemy that knows no rules of law, that will wear civilian uniforms, that is willing to kill in order to continue the reign of fear of Saddam Hussein," Bush said. "But we're fighting them with bravery and courage ... We will prevail."
In the southern Iraq city of Basra, a local uprising against Saddam's forces was under way Tuesday night, according to British Army intelligence officers attached to the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, who said they had begun firing artillery to support the uprising.
A successful local rising among the Shiite Muslims would be a stunning political setback for the Baghdad regime and vindicate those in the U.S. and British governments who said many Iraqis would welcome their troops as liberators.
Criticism of allied war plans has built as some Iraqi troops continued to put up strong resistance, a number of coalition soldiers were killed or captured by Iraqi forces and an Apache helicopter went down Monday and others pulled back in a hail of anti-aircraft fire near Baghdad.
Some of the criticism centered on whether U.S. and British forces were too "light" both in terms of manpower and armaments.
The issue was the first question raised at Tuesday's Pentagon briefing by Myers and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: "Critics are coming out of the walls to criticize this ground campaign. They say ... there are simply not enough troops and armor on the ground right now to efficiently take Baghdad or protect your rear. How would you answer that?"
"It is a good plan," Rumsfeld said, "and it is a plan that in four and a half or five days has moved ground forces to within a short distance of Baghdad. And forces increase in the country every minute and every hour of every day. And that will continue to be the case.
"The people who are involved in this ... are very comfortable, as are the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who have met with the president twice in the last two days and discussed it."
Rumsfeld then asked Myers if he wanted to comment and the general responded, "You bet I do," before offering his own spirited defense.
At the White House, press secretary Ari Fleischer swatted down pointed questions about whether the Unite States was on track to provide humanitarian assistance to Iraq, especially to Basra, where food and water were said to be in desperately short supply.
A reporter asked why aid wasn't flowing into Iraq by now as the president suggested it would be on Sunday: "Did he misspeak, or is this an example of where the coalition plans haven't gone as quickly as you would hope?"
Fleischer said that "massive amounts of humanitarian aid should begin moving within the next 36 hours. They are moving. We desire to get them to their end object." He noted that allies must first de-mine the port of Umm Qasr.
Another reporter asserted that "not until the president ordered the war to begin and the address to the American people last Wednesday did he prepare the public for what would be, in his words, a longer and more difficult military fight than many have predicted. Why didn't he do it sooner?"
Fleischer was ready with three earlier statements by Bush, in which he counseled patience and said war requires sacrifice and the timetable is uncertain.
"I think the American people have fully understood all the way along that there is risk, that there is sacrifice as the nation prepared for war, and the president was very overt with the country about -- that this could result in the use of force," Fleischer said.
The war's progress will be on the agenda Wednesday when Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair meet at Camp David in the Maryland mountains to discuss strategy.
In Baghdad on Tuesday, Saddam urged tribal leaders to attack U.S. and British soldiers without waiting for orders, seeming to calculate that a prolonged struggle or significant casualties might force the allies to retreat.
"If you face the enemy and inflict serious casualties and losses even if they are not big, you will see how they will flee scared because they are strangers and criminal aggressors," Saddam said.
It was the second consecutive day Saddam appeared on Iraqi TV, but it was not known when the item was taped.
At the Pentagon, Bush painted a picture of success and determination on a broad front, saying that "our coalition is on a steady advance. We're making good progress."
"Eighteen months ago, this building came under attack," Bush said, referring to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the Pentagon and in New York that killed about 3,000 people.
"From that day to this, we have been engaged in a new kind of war, and we are winning. We will not leave our future to be decided by terrorist groups or terrorist regimes."
Bush accuses Saddam of hiding weapons of mass destruction and refusing to be disarmed in violation of repeated resolutions by the U.N. Security Council. Tuesday, there was renewed concern among coalition leaders that Iraqi troops -- who by some accounts have begun carrying gas masks -- might respond to advancing coalition forces by unleashing chemical attacks.
Officials said they believe a "red line" ringing Baghdad might serve as a tripwire for such attacks once it was crossed.
Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz Tuesday dismissed those concerns as "fabrications and lies."
The Pentagon released the names of seven Marines killed Sunday in battle near An Nasiriyah. As of Tuesday, there were 20 people confirmed killed in action and two confirmed American prisoners of war. The 12 soldiers from a maintenance unit ambushed at the weekend are still officially listed as missing in action.
U.S. Central Command said there were additional casualties in fighting in An Nasiriyah but didn't specify a number. Reporters embedded with combat units said there were reports of additional deaths, but the Pentagon hadn't confirmed them.
CNN reported Monday a total of 39 killed, according to tallies from embedded reporters.
Two U.S. Army pilots are confirmed prisoners of war after their Apache helicopter was downed in Iraq Sunday.
Some of the 12 soldiers ambushed Sunday in their supply convoy might also be prisoners of war. Some might have been killed, according to video footage of dead soldiers aired by Iraqi TV Sunday. At least five were being interrogated as prisoners of war on the tape.
Bush will visit CENTCOM in Tampa on Wednesday, then fly to Camp David to meet Blair.
Blair, boosted by a new poll Tuesday that showed a significant surge in support for war, told the House of Commons that the leading edge of troops was 60 miles from Baghdad and would soon face a "crucial moment" when they would face highly trained Iraqi Republican Guards blocking the route.
He said coalition troops had taken the Aw Faw peninsula and the port of Umm Qasr despite "pockets of resistance," and had secured southern oil installations and the western desert.
The battle of Baghdad, however, was on hold, delayed by a howling sandstorm that cut visibility, hampered the combat helicopters and forced U.S. forces around An Najaf to wrap their tanks and vehicles in tarpaulins against the grinding sand.
"The storm will deepen gradually tonight, reaching wind speeds of up to 50 kilometers per hour (30 mph) before moving to the east Thursday," Khalid al-Shuaibi, chief meteorologist at Kuwait airport, told UPI.
But the storm did not prevent the aerial bombing of Iraqi Republican Guard units around Baghdad, some of them using targeting information from British SAS and U.S. Special Forces teams on the ground.
About half of the sorties by coalition air forces were being flown against the Republican Guard, focusing on the Medina armored division and Nebuchadnezzar infantry division south of Baghdad.
The Medina division, equipped with Soviet-built T-72 tanks, is seen as the strongest single unit on the Iraqi side. It also has a large contingent of highly mobile ZSU-23 anti-aircraft armored vehicles, firing radar-guarded quadruple cannon.
Fighting also raged Tuesday in An Nasiriyah in southern Iraq, and explosions and anti-aircraft tracer fire were heard in Baghdad, CNN reported.
(With reporting by Richard Tomkins with the 5th Marine Regimental Combat Team, Mike Gallagher in Baghdad, Pamela Hess from the Pentagon, Kathy Gambrell at the White House, Thomas Houlahan in Washington, Seva Ulman in Ankara, Turkey, Elizabeth Bryant in Paris, Gareth Harding in Brussels, Martin Walker in Kuwait City, and Hussein Hindawi in London.)