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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Iraqi Militia, Sand Snarl U.S. Troops

ReutersIraqis cheering on an Apache military helicopter Monday in the Hindiya district, 120 kilometers southwest of Baghdad. Iraq said farmers shot down two U.S. helicopters.
NEAR KARBALA, Iraq -- Coalition troops pressed toward Baghdad with new wariness Monday as militiamen loyal to Saddam Hussein proved they were not a beaten force and sandstorms snarled the advance.

Iraq claimed to have shot down two U.S. helicopters and taken two pilots prisoner, a day after more than 20 Americans were killed or captured. And a British soldier was killed Monday in southern Iraq, British defense officials said.

Facing a pattern of deadly ambushes and ruses, and with many of Hussein's supporters discarding their uniforms in favor of civilian clothes, coalition forces responded with tough new tactics in the south. U.S. officials also confirmed that forces, including British and Australian troops, were operating in the north and west of Iraq. Some were special forces traveling in small teams.

Hussein, in an appearance that seemed calculated to show he remained at the helm, sought to rally his people Monday with a televised speech.

Iraqi television later showed images of what appeared to be a downed U.S. Apache attack helicopter sitting largely undamaged in a grassy field. Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf claimed peasants had shot down two Apaches, and two pilots were in custody.

U.S. General Tommy Franks, the commander in charge of the allied forces, later confirmed that one helicopter and its two pilots were missing in action.

A brutal sandstorm with howling winds stalled U.S. troops about 80 kilometers south of Baghdad, near Karbala, a city holy to Iraq's majority Shiite Muslims. As the U.S. Army's 7th Infantry Regiment pressed north, Iraqi militiamen shot mortars at a supply convoy. There were no casualties.

Armed members of Hussein's Baath party militia have increasingly been attacking coalition supply lines in this way.

With tension about such attacks mounting, U.S. Marines operating in the south took a tough line with Iraqis they encountered Monday, forcing men from vehicles, questioning them and then slashing their tires to make sure they wouldn't harass other convoys.

But coalition officials rejected suggestions that continued Iraqi resistance or casualties had knocked war plans off balance. "I think that within three days of real military operations beginning, the idea that somehow people are losing confidence or heart is nonsense," British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said. "This is a difficult, demanding, complex, sophisticated military operation. It is not going to be over in a matter of days."

British spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ronnie McCourt confirmed coalition forces had exchanged new fire Monday with Iraqis on the outskirts of Basra, Iraq's main southern city, where the allies earlier captured an airport and a key bridge. Commanders held off storming the city, hoping its Iraqi defenders would give up, but they have held firm.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned of a humanitarian crisis in Basra, where coalition forces were involved in fierce fighting. "Urgent measures" were needed to restore the city's electricity and water supply, he said.

Hussein appeared relaxed and healthy on Iraqi television -- strikingly different from the way he looked in the speech aired Thursday, the day the air assault began. In full military dress, he assured Iraqis "victory will be ours soon," and specifically mentioned the defiant resistance of Iraqi forces in Umm Qasr. The reference seemed designed to allay any suspicion that the address had been taped earlier or that Hussein had been wounded or killed last week.

But White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said nothing in Hussein's Monday speech proved it had been made since the beginning of the war.

In London, Hoon said he was not convinced the address was current. "The contemporary events referred to ... did not appear to me to be unambiguously contemporary," he said.

Nine U.S. Marines died and a dozen American soldiers were missing and presumed captured after surprise engagements near An Nasiriyah, a crossing point over the Euphrates River. Additionally, two U.S. Marines were killed in accidents, military officials said Monday.

A British soldier was killed Monday in combat near the port of Az Zubayr in southern Iraq, the first British combat death since the war began, the Ministry of Defense said in London.

In images shown on Iraqi television Sunday, five captured U.S. soldiers -- four men and a woman -- appeared frightened but resolute. Arab television also showed what it said were four Americans dead in an Iraqi morgue.

Iraqi officials have offered repeated assurances that the prisoners would be treated according to the Geneva Convention. Franks said his forces have captured about 3,000 Iraqi prisoners. The International Committee of the Red Cross said Monday that it had not been granted access to prisoners held by either side.

In Baghdad, black smoke from fires set to obscure targets concealed the sun and gave the capital a bleak, midwinter atmosphere. Despite violent bombardments early Monday, people were out and some shops were open -- though mostly those selling suitcases.

Outside An Nasiriyah, the mood among U.S. Marines was somber as news spread about comrades killed while trying to take in prisoners of war. Lieutenant General John Abizaid of Central Command said the faked surrender had sparked the "sharpest engagement of the war thus far." For leaders of the coalition, thoughts that Hussein's defenders would surrender easily have faded away.

"Clearly they are not a beaten force," said General Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. "This is going to get a lot harder."

U.S. officials did herald one promising discovery: a suspected chemical factory near the Najaf, a Shiite city about 160 kilometers from Baghdad. A senior Bush administration official said the plant is being evaluated and that American forces are chasing down leads from captured Iraqis and documents on other possible chemical and biological weapons sites. But as of Monday, Washington had not confirmed the presence of any weapons of mass destruction.

Elsewhere, a U.S. missile struck a Syrian passenger bus near the Iraqi border, killing five and injuring 10, Syria's official news agency reported Monday. U.S. Central Command said it had no information about the report.

Meanwhile, a U.S. special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, rushed to Turkey to discuss Turkish plans to send troops into northern Iraq.