Iraqi paramilitary forces ambushed a lost Army supply convoy yesterday, killing or capturing 12 American soldiers on a day that saw the war's fiercest fighting for control of southern Iraq, as allied tanks drove north to within 60 miles of Baghdad.
The United States also lost Marines in a tank-and-gun battle near Nasiriyah. Other coalition forces felt the blow of casualties in fights around Umm Qasr, Basra and the Al Faw peninsula near the Persian Gulf.
In another setback, a U.S.-fired Patriot missile meant for incoming Scuds struck a British Tornado fighter returning to Kuwait from a bombing run. The two aviators are missing.
"Today was a tough day of fighting for the coalition," said U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, deputy operations office at U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar.
Iraqi troops fell into a pattern of attacking rear-guard allied soldiers as the invasion force moved north.
Despite the setbacks, Army Lt. Gen. John Abizaid, the command's deputy commander, said, "We will continue to attack until the regime is overthrown." He called the coalition arrayed against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein "powerful and unstoppable."
Gen. Abizaid accused Saddam of booby-trapping Baghdad to kill civilians. He said Saddam's ragtag paramilitary forces were faking surrenders and then firing on the allies.
The command was shocked yesterday to see Qatar's Arab-language Al Jazeera television channel broadcast footage of five stunned-looking American soldiers, including an enlisted woman, being questioned by Iraqi captors at an unknown location.
The video, apparently taped by Iraqi forces, also depicted what were purported to be dead Americans from the same unit, with bullet wounds to the forehead. Some Pentagon officials said it appeared the soldiers had been executed.
On the tape, two of the prisoners said they were with the 507th Maintenance Company, part of the 111th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas.
One of the prisoners was identified yesterday as Army Spc. Joseph Hudson. His mother, Anecita Hudson of Alamogordo, N.M., said she recognized her son from images shown on TV. The Pentagon, however, has not officially confirmed the identities of any of the POWs.
Gen. Abizaid said the six-vehicle convoy, supplying ground forces moving toward Baghdad, was ambushed by Iraqi security forces. The convoy's commanding officer made a "wrong turn and went somewhere he wasn't supposed to be," Gen. Abizaid said. He said 12 soldiers from the supply unit were missing last night.
During the Doha press conference, he chastised the Al Jazeera reporter in attendance, saying, "I would say those pictures were disgusting."
American news networks generally complied with a Pentagon request not to broadcast the tape. Iraqi state-run television displayed the clip repeatedly throughout the day.
Central Command did not release an exact count of those killed or wounded yesterday, but said the Marines lost less than nine in the battle near Nasiriyah.
Gen. Abizaid called the firefight the "sharpest engagement of the war thus far." A British Broadcasting Corp. reporter on the scene said 40 Marines were wounded and four were killed.
As the allies moved closer to Baghdad, Saddam's top aides held a televised press conference in Baghdad to express defiance.
But America's war leaders sounded just as determined to conquer Baghdad and oust Saddam.
Baghdad, which felt the intensity of "shock and awe" air strikes Friday, continued to be hit yesterday by 2,000-pound bombs and Tomahawk cruise missiles against regime targets. One particularly intense barrage came at 3:10 a.m. Baghdad time, shaking the city's center.
"The ground forces are moving along at a very good clip and heading towards Baghdad," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "So I think all and all, while your heart breaks when ... someone is killed or taken prisoner, nonetheless the general progress of it, I think, is excellent."
He added, "You have to appreciate this conflict started on the ground 72 hours ago. The fact that there's a firefight someplace ought not to be surprising."
"Saddam Hussein is losing control of his country," President Bush said after receiving his daily war briefing. "It's going to take awhile to achieve our objective, but we're on course, we're determined, and we're making good progress."
Mr. Rumsfeld charged that Iraq violated the Geneva Convention by putting the POW video on TV. Iraq also mistreated American fliers held captive in the 1991 Gulf war, parading their beaten faces on state-run television.
Still, Iraqi Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmed said yesterday, "Iraq will not harm the captured prisoners of war."
Iraq has not mounted a concerted counterattack, as British and American troops isolated southern cities and the Army's 3rd Infantry Division drove with impressive speed across the Euphrates River toward Baghdad.
But one strategy has emerged.
Iraq's paramilitary security forces, some of Saddam's most loyal followers, are attempting to ambush follow-on allied units once the main combat divisions move past. In some cases, the Iraqis are waving white flags but then opening fire. In other cases, they take off their military uniforms, dress as civilians and then attack.
"The majority of resistance we have faced so far comes from Saddam's special security organization," said the top British commander, Maj. Gen. Peter Wall. "These are men who know that they will have no role in the building of a new Iraq, and they have no future."
Added Mr. Rumsfeld, "I suspect that there will continue to be sporadic firefights from some dead-enders who don't want to give up."
Asked why the coalition has not bombed Baghdad's television station, whereby the regime can communicate with its citizens, the defense secretary said Saddam has placed civilians around the facilities.
"It would be highly desirable to have completely, totally ended any ability on their ability to communicate," he said. "It may happen and I would strongly advise the people, the civilians who are anywhere near those facilities, that they leave."
The Jerusalem Post reported that a 3rd Infantry unit discovered a huge facility south of Baghdad at An Najaf that had produced chemical weapons.
The Post said troops yesterday entered the facility, where 30 Iraqi soldiers and a general officer quickly surrendered. The newspaper said the Iraqis camouflaged buildings so the plant could not be detected by spy satellites.
Asked about the report, Gen. Abizaid said, "I will not confirm that report. We have an Iraqi general officer — two Iraqi general officers — that we have taken prisoner, and they are providing us with information."
If chemical weapons are at An Naja, it will mark the first confirmation since the war began that Iraq is harboring prohibited weapons, as the Bush administration has charged.
"I think we'll find [weapons of mass destruction] once we have had an opportunity to occupy Baghdad, stabilize Iraq, talk to Iraqis that have participated in the hiding and in the development of it," Gen. Abizaid said. "And it will take some time. We should not expect to immediately come across it."
As Operation Iraqi Freedom completed its fifth day, a ground offensive led by the 3rd Infantry Division got within 60 miles from Baghdad, setting up a confrontation this week with two Republican Guard divisions defending the city's southern flank.
Central Command has begun concentrated bombing attacks on the Republican Guard's four key divisions, two defending Baghdad and two dug in around Saddam's hometown of Tikrit north of the capital.
The United States began intensifying a buildup of airborne forces in Kurdish areas of northern Iraq to create a northern front against Tikrit and Baghdad.
The Associated Press quoted Kurdish officials as saying scores of transport planes carrying hundreds of troops landed at the Bakrajo airstrip 10 miles west of Sulaymaniyan.
Army Green Berets already in the region have joined up with Kurdish fighters, who may go south to help put pressure on Republican Guard units.
Central Command is continuing secret talks for Iraqi surrender. A senior U.S. official said yesterday that two Iraqi divisions are close to waving the white flag, but he declined to say which ones.
"We've been in touch with some of them," Mr. Rumsfeld told CNN's "Late Edition." "There is at least the prospect that some of them will surrender and assist us."
But he warned, "There's also the prospect that the resistance will get a good deal more difficult."
Ground troops were getting help from the air as the allies executed about 1,000 strike sorties in 24 hours. The Air Force and five Navy carriers were launching strike aircraft around the clock.
Many pilots focused on Iraqi units dug in between Baghdad and advancing American and British troops.
Cmdr. Gary Shoman, an F-18 pilot aboard the USS Kitty Hawk, told reporters that he attacked Iraqi artillery positions that "were hidden between trees and fields and such. The report was that there were multiple pieces and to go ahead and find as many as we could."
In action on Friday, the Marines lost two infantrymen, including Lt. Therrel S. Childers, 30, a veteran of the Gulf war.
Lt. Childers' sister, Sandy Brown, lives in Killeen, Texas, with her husband, Sgt. Richard Brown of the Army's 13th Combat Support Command Unit at Fort Hood. He was scheduled to ship out to the Persian Gulf yesterday, but was given a monthlong deferral to stay back and help his wife and the couple's 8-year-old daughter cope with their loss.
Speaking on his wife's behalf yesterday, Sgt. Brown said his brother-in-law was a man of honor. "He died exactly how he wanted to," Sgt. Brown said of Lt. Childers. "He died a Marine, he died in combat, he died leading his troops and most of all, he died with honor."