American infantry troops fought off a desert attack by Iraqis yesterday, inflicting heavy casualties in a clash less than 100 miles from Baghdad. British forces battled for control of Basra, a city of 1.3 million sliding toward chaos.

Defense officials said between 150 and 500 Iraqis were killed in the battle near An Najaf, adding there were no immediate reports of American casualties.

Iraqis launched their attack on a day of howling sandstorms – weather bad enough to slow the U.S.-led drive toward the Iraqi capital.

After the sandstorm lifted in Baghdad, coalition aircraft struck the Iraqi state-run television channel, which U.S. military officials wanted to hit in order to cut communications links between Saddam Hussein and his military and the Iraqi people. U.S. troops in control of a vast Iraqi air base sealed 36 bunkers, designated as possible hiding places for weapons of mass destruction.

American officials also issued fresh cautions about the possible use of chemical weapons by Iraqi troops, although none has yet been used in the 6-day-old war – or even found by the invading troops.

As the pace of combat quickened, American and British officials sought to prepare the public for something less than a quick campaign, and predicted difficult days to come.

Still, President Bush forecast victory. The Iraqi regime will be ended … and our world will be more secure and peaceful,” he said after receiving a war update at the Pentagon.

Saddam saw it differently. State television carried what it described as a message from him to tribal and clan leaders, saying, “Consider this to be the command of faith and jihad and fight them.”

If confirmed, the initial reports of fighting near An Najaf would make it the biggest ground clash of the war, as well as the first encounter between advancing American infantry and the Iraqi units guarding the approach to Saddam’s seat of power.

A senior military official said the U.S. troops had hunkered down against a sandstorm when Iraqis – either Republican Guard or paramilitary Iraqi troops traveling on foot – opened fire with rocket-propelled grenades.

Some of the 7th Cavalry’s equipment was damaged in the attack, the official said. The unit is part of the Army force driving on Baghdad. Some elements of the force are farther north, near Karbala, with only the Medina armored division of the Republican Guard between them and Baghdad. Muslim clerics in Iran warned against military threats to shrines in Iraq. An Najaf is the burial place of Imam Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed.

Details of the situation inside the southern city of Basra, Iraq’s second-largest, also were sketchy. British journalists reported that residents were staging an uprising against pro-Saddam forces and that Iraqi troops were firing mortars at them.

British forces staged a raid on a suburb of the city, captured a senior leader of the ruling Baath party and killed 20 of his bodyguards.

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