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Jason Bellini: Marines playing 'street cop'

CNN's Jason Bellini

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NASIRIYA, Iraq (CNN) -- As other U.S. forces surged toward Baghdad, intense fighting continued deep in southern Iraq.

CNN's Jason Bellini, who is embedded with the U.S. 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, talked with CNN anchor Carol Costello about the fighting in Nasiriya, as well as the dramatic rescue of an American POW in a hospital there early Wednesday.

BELLINI: We're in the town of Nasiriya now, and the action we saw was on our way in.

The big news has been the very dramatic, very daring POW rescue. The Marines we're embedded with weren't directly involved with that, but they did play a supporting role.

The bombardment that they undertook in Nasiriya -- at two very selected locations -- was designed to deter attention away from the site where they made that rescue. So it was a very loud, very bright night late last night here in Nasiriya.

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Our photographer shot, with night vision, pictures of the aerial bombardment from 81-millimeter mortar rounds, from 150-millimeter Howitzer artillery. There were also Cobra helicopters flying around, using their machine guns. It was very loud, very bright -- it probably kept everyone here awake late into the night.

We arrived here very early in the morning, and the Marines got a little bit of shut-eye. Now they're waking up to this very beautiful scene behind me, the Euphrates River. They're not going to be doing any swimming anytime soon, because there's a lot of work that they have to do here, more locations that they need to seize and secure.

Their mission here is, one, to make the route north to Baghdad more secure for coalition forces. You've been hearing in the last week about the militia raids on convoys that were heading north. But the Marines also plan to try to make the city of Nasiriya itself more safe.

A Marine that I just spoke to was pointing out people down there who were fishing, collecting water and using canoes to cross the river. He said that's because we're here: They see us, and they feel more safe.

The Marine described other parts of Nasiriya as ghost towns, because people are afraid of these Fedayeen Saddam [Iraqi paramilitary known for their guerrilla tactics].

While the Marines are here, they say it's unfortunate, but they're going to be playing the role of street cop to a large extent.

COSTELLO: Can the Marines better identify who the enemy is right now?

BELLINI: It's still a very tricky situation for them.

On Tuesday, Marines from the command element went into this area to do some scouting and plan for last night's mission. And they came under attack from what they described as a taxi.

The Marines described it as a suicide attack, because this one ambush attacker was going after very well-armed Marines and in five Humvees. But the Marines said that's the kind of thing that they're on the lookout for.

In fact, today we've seen taxis on the road, and they're keeping a very close eye on them. They said that white pickup trucks and taxis are possible vehicles for militias who are scouting them, checking out their positions. They've seen them drive by very closely and that's very ominous to them.

COSTELLO: And one more question about the POW rescue, where U.S. forces rescued U.S. Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch at a Nasiriya hospital. Do you know anything about that hospital?

BELLINI: We do know is that it was under the control of Fedayeen Saddam loyalists.

U.S. forces here said they don't really want to bombard, they don't want to use their artillery and mortar rounds on places like hospitals and schools. But they said they end up having to attack those places because that's where the Saddam Fedayeen are located.

The Marines are getting human intelligence on the ground saying [Iraqi forces] are holed up in a hospital, they're holed up in the school. So it is difficult for U.S. forces, they tell me, because they really don't want to attack a hospital, but they have to.

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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