WASHINGTON, March 27 (UPI) -- Around 30 Marines were wounded by apparent "friendly fire" in a 90-minute battle Wednesday near an Nasiriyah, according to embedded reporters and Central Command officials.
Shells fired from a distance by one Marine unit fell on the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines, NBC News reported. The unit had fired the shells when the 2nd Battalion called for support after coming under fire from Iraq irregular troops, according to NBC, which has a reporter embedded with the battalion.
U.S. Central Command acknowledges some friendly fire injuries in the unit but hasn't yet released details.
During the 1991 Gulf War, 35 American soldiers died in friendly fire incidents. A total of 146 Americans were killed in action.
With the weather clearing, the 3rd Infantry Division is bracing for what is expected to be the first major ground clash with the Republican Guard near Karbala south of Baghdad, U.S. officials said Thursday.
"The land component remains on track and continues its advance beyond Diwaniyah east of An Najaf," Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, Central Command's spokesman in Qatar, said Thursday.
What was expected to be a massive fight Wednesday turned out to be just a few vehicles moving south from Baghdad, most of which were destroyed by coalition aircraft and ground forces.
Reports that a major Iraqi column was moving south Wednesday from Baghdad to reinforce an Nasiriyah and an Najaf under cover of a sandstorm were overstated, said Brooks.
"The reality was there were not some large number of vehicles. We heard reports between hundreds and thousands. That was not the case at all," Brooks said.
The reports were based on an erroneous electronic signal, most likely to an airborne JSTARS ground surveillance plane equipped with a "moving target indicator." The signal was erroneous, but it was received by military intelligence officials on the ground and was reported up the chain of command.
"It also got released to the world, because we have embedded media, and they were reporting what the unit was sensing at that time; a very classic example of how the world looks from down on the line," Brooks said.
It was a classic example of the metaphorical "fog of war," which in this case was complicated by a massive swirling sandstorm that kept scout helicopters grounded and ground troops hunkered down.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers told reporters Wednesday night the massive column was just a few vehicles and they were being targeted by U.S. aircraft.
Also Wednesday, a column of tanks broke out of Basra, which is ringed by British troops. The armored column of about 20 vehicles was destroyed, according to Air Marshal Brian Burridge, commander of British forces in the Gulf.
"Having established that these forces were not trying to surrender, U.K. forces took swift and decisive action against this threat, destroying a number, through a mixture of artillery and coalition airpower," Burridge said.
"You can tell from the way they're dispossessed operationally that this isn't a fighting formation that really knows its business. That's the way it is. It is disorganized, but there is someone in there trying to organize it," Burridge said.
Brooks acknowledged Thursday that some soldiers of the 51st Division -- whose commander reportedly surrendered to American forces over last weekend -- are fighting in Basra. He contended it is literally under the gun, however.
Brooks said that in some cases, the soldiers have turned on the irregular forces and killed them.
The column was manned by a mix of irregular troops and regular soldiers -- possibly some from the 51st Division.
"On the surrender of the 51st, yes, they did follow the instructions of the coalition. And that was a matter of choice, and we applaud their choice. They were pressed back into service, as best we can tell, by the paramilitaries, the terroristic-behaving organizations of this regime. That was not by choice," he said.
"We believe that some of them made yet another choice, which was to put an end to that type of behavior. And we applaud that choice as well."
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called the Saddam Fedayeen forces "vicious" Thursday. Speaking briefly to reporters after testifying to a Senate panel, Rumsfeld said there are between 5,000 and 20,000 Fedayeen in Iraq.
"They go into the cities and shoot people and threaten people and insist that they not surrender and not rise up. And they're vicious. They left somebody in the center of Baghdad not too long ago with his tongue pulled out until he bled to death, cut his tongue out. And they're ... executing people in Basra," he said.
On Tuesday, the 1st U.K. Armored Division destroyed 11 heavy mortars, firing on them from inside Basra, as well as some D-30 artillery and some T-55 tanks, according to Burridge.
About 30,000 members of the 4th Infantry Division are en route to Kuwait.
On Wednesday 1,000 paratroopers with the 173rd Airborne Brigade out of Vicenza, Italy, parachuted into northern Iraq. They are the leading edge of what is expected to be a northern front on the war. They join several hundred Special Forces operating there.
Rumsfeld denied Wednesday that the entry of new forces represented a change in plans or an admission that the 250,000 U.S. troops committed to the war are not sufficient. He said the force flow had been planned all along, as it takes months to get troops mobilized and deployed.
Brooks reiterated the confidence Central Command has in its force.
"The reality is, we have adequate force to do what we need to do, and we remain satisfied with that," he said.
A senior defense official said this week by the time the war is over, the military is likely to have moved 340,000 troops through the combat region, as it relieves soldiers on the ground.
Brooks continued to deflect Iraqi charges that the Untied States bombed a marketplace in northern Baghdad, killing as many as 14. He said Central Command is reviewing its flight plans to see whether it was possible, but a more likely scenario is that the damage was done by an Iraqi missile falling back to earth or on purpose by Saddam's regime.
"We're seeing indications where many of the problems that we see where civilians are being reported being killed happen to be in Shia populations. There may be a pattern there. I'll let you draw your own conclusion," Brooks said.
A humanitarian aid ship, the Sir Galahad, has been delayed getting into Umm Qasr because coalition forces have found mines buried on the sea floor.
"Last night, U.K. mine hunters discovered and then detonated two mines outside the swept shipping channel. This proves beyond doubt that Saddam's regime has attempted to stop essential stores and humanitarian supplies from being delivered to his own people," said Burridge.
Brooks said the mines were "bottom-influenced" and programmed to count a certain number of hulls before detonating.
These sorts of mines reduce confidence in waterways; a ship captain cannot depend on a waterway being cleared even if other ships are operating safely. They are also useful tactically as they can destroy a vessel in the middle of a convoy, cutting off ships to the front and the back and generally causing confusion and a halt.
Brooks said the mines are based on foreign technology whose origin he didn't identify, but he said they were developed by Iraq, which he suggested was violation of U.N. sanctions.
"We believe that these have been developed since the imposition of sanctions. Before 1991, Iraq did not have these," he said.
Six oil wells continue to burn in the southern Rumailyah oil field. Burridge said it will cost around $1 billion to repair the field and get it producing to its capacity of about 1.8 million barrels per day.
He said oil could be exported within three months.
Also, 40 Iraqi expatriates have joined U.S. civil affairs units coordinating the delivery of humanitarian aid, Brooks said. They are called "Free Iraqi Forces" and were trained for four weeks in Hungary before joining the units.
Burridge Thursday lashed out at al-Jazeera television, the Qatar-based satellite network, which Wednesday broadcast close-up images of dead British soldiers. The families of the soldiers had not yet been notified of their deaths.
"The decision by al-Jazeera to broadcast such material is deplorable, and we call on them to desist from future broadcasts of such a nature," Burridge said. "All media outlets must be aware of the limits of taste and decency and be wary that they do not unwittingly become the tools of the Iraqi regime."