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Marines fight for road north near Nasiriya

Clash follows day of setbacks

Army Lt. Gen. John Abizaid: "I can tell you ... that we are definitely missing 12 Army soldiers ... some of whom ended up on Baghdad television."

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NASIRIYA, Iraq (CNN) -- U.S. Marines battled Iraqi forces Monday to establish control of a north-south route near this southern city.

According to a CNN correspondent embedded with the 2nd Marine Division, the U.S. forces were firing mortars at an Iraqi bunker.

The latest skirmish followed a day in which Iraqi forces killed and wounded several Marines in what a senior U.S. officer called "the sharpest engagement of the war thus far." In addition, 12 soldiers from a U.S. Army maintenance unit were unaccounted for, and several soldiers were shown on Iraqi state television as prisoners.

The CNN reporter said a troop carrier capable of holding up to two dozen Marines was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade Sunday.

Witnesses to the troop carrier attack said at least 10 Marines were killed.

But at a U.S. Central Command briefing in Qatar on Sunday, Army Lt. Gen. John Abizaid said the number of dead was less than that.

"I can tell you for a fact that we are definitely missing 12 Army soldiers who are unaccounted for, some of whom ended up on Baghdad television," he said. "We have a number of killed in the action in Nasiriya with the Marines -- I believe that number will remain less than 10 -- and a number of wounded."

Abizaid said the enemy fighters were irregular and regular forces, and that the engagement was one of the "few times that we've seen regular forces fight." He would not say whether the regular forces included fighters of Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard.

"But the Marines were successful. They defeated the enemy," he said.

The Marines destroyed at least eight tanks, several antiaircraft batteries and artillery "along with a number of infantry," Abizaid said.

In Baghdad, Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmad said Iraqi forces had turned back three attempts by coalition troops to capture Nasiriya, destroying 17 tanks and armored personnel carriers in the process.

Smoke rises over Baghdad after a fresh bombardment rattled the Iraqi capital early Monday.

Hoping to speed their advance toward Baghdad, U.S. and allied troops had not planned to occupy Nasiriya, a key crossing point on the Euphrates River.

The Marines entered the city Sunday after the 12 soldiers were captured in an Iraqi ambush on a U.S. supply convoy.

After that attack, the captured soldiers were shown on Iraqi state television. Two of them, including a female soldier, appeared to be wounded. Some pictures showed what were said to be dead U.S. soldiers, some of whom appeared to have been shot in the forehead.

In Washington, President Bush said any Iraqi officials involved in mistreating prisoners "will be treated as war criminals," and Abizaid said showing prisoners of war on television was a "clear violation" of the Geneva Conventions.

Mohamed Aldouri, Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, said Iraq will follow the international guidelines for the humane treatment of POWs

"We will respect carefully the international humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions," he said. "I hope that the American Army will respect [this] also."

-- CNN correspondent Alessio Vinci contributed to this report.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This report was written in accordance with Pentagon ground rules allowing so-called embedded reporting, in which journalists join deployed troops. Among the rules accepted by all participating news organizations is an agreement not to disclose sensitive operational details.

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