About 600 troops of the 82nd Airborne Division clashed with Iraqi paramilitary forces today, the first skirmish in a mission to secure a major U.S. supply route by entering a nearby city and rooting out militia members who are attacking convoys.
It was the combat debut for the 82nd, which on Thursday began moving out of Kuwait and set up camp at an abandoned military airfield inside Iraq.
About 600 infantry battalion troops encountered about 50 members of Saddam's Fedayeen -- a paramilitary group loyal to President Saddam Hussein's ruling Baath Party -- just outside a city targeted by the division as a Fedayeen stronghold.
The soldiers killed 14 men, captured three and seized about 100 cases of Russian-made rocket-propelled grenades, according to division commanders. No U.S. casualties were reported.
Commanders asked that the city, located on Highway 8, the most direct route between southern Iraq and Baghdad, not be named because the mission was ongoing.
Col. Karl R. Horst, the division's chief of staff, estimated that about 1,000 members of the Fedayeen are based in the city. The U.S. military says that the Fedayeen and other paramilitary groups have been dressing as civilians and ambushing supply convoys attempting to deliver supplies to advancing divisions in south and central Iraq.
"They fight to the death, and they won't stop by any other means," Horst said of the Fedayeen. "So what we're going to do is go in there and kill them."
The mission represented a shift in plans for the division, which had spent months training for an airborne assault on Baghdad International Airport, also known as Saddam Hussein Airport. That mission assumed a quick collapse of Hussein's government, according to division commanders, but when threats on the supply lines emerged last week, the unit was diverted here.
"We speculate on what an enemy is going to do, but he doesn't always do what we think," Horst said. "So the situation becomes more difficult."
Last weekend an Army maintenance convoy on the supply route took a wrong turn and was ambushed by paramilitary forces near the city of Nasiriyah. As many as 13 U.S. soldiers were captured or killed as a result.
The route is also intended as an artery for humanitarian convoys that are set to carry tons of food and other relief supplies, which military officials believe could help win popular support among Iraqis for U.S. aims.
Units from the Marines and the Army's 3rd Infantry and 101st Airborne divisions are targeting Nasiriyah and other towns along the supply route to quash the resistance.
Many members of the 82nd boarded an assault convoy of 594 vehicles on Thursday night and rode out of Champion Main, the camp in Kuwait where the 82nd had spent more than a month. The convoys made the 20-hour trip across the desert at speeds averaging about 20 mph. They encountered no resistance. Additional troops flew into Iraq aboard 31 Air Force C-130 transports on Saturday morning.
The division's light armored combat units are supported by part of an Army mechanized division equipped with M1 Abrams tanks and Bradley M2 Fighting Vehicles, Horst said.
"More often than not, the enemy has done ambushes against soft targets instead of combat-ready forces with guns pointing out at them," said Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack Jr., commander of the 82nd Airborne in Iraq. But Horst said he expects a fight that will end with urban combat. "They're not afraid of Bradleys," he said. "They come after them."