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U.S. Marines make headway in battle for Nasiriya

A Marine on an armored vehicle guards his camp, near Nasiriya, on Thursday.
A Marine on an armored vehicle guards his camp, near Nasiriya, on Thursday.

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NASIRIYA, Iraq (CNN) -- After a protracted battle and despite confusion distinguishing friend from foe, U.S. Marines made major inroads Friday in the southeastern Iraqi city of Nasiriya, military officials told CNN.

Three Marine infantry battalions occupy the northern and southern sections of the city, located on the Euphrates River northwest of Basra and southeast of Najaf, officials said.

U.S. forces are "very close to controlling Nasiriya and making it secure," said Marine Col. Ron Johnson, operations officer for the 2nd Marines, Task Force Tarwa.

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"We have the town surrounded and all the main approaches," he said. "They're making very good progress against moderate resistance."

U.S. Special Operations aircraft have destroyed two Iraqi paramilitary headquarters in Nasiriya, U.S. Central Command spokesman Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said in a news briefing Friday.

Marines in the area also undertook numerous search-and-destroy missions, destroying nine D30s -- Iraqi guns with a range of up to 12 miles -- and several mortar positions Thursday, Johnson said. On Thursday night, U.S. forces moved 375 prisoners of war from a former girls' school in Nasiriya to Marine encampments outside the city, he said.

In the past week, U.S. forces have encountered some of the heaviest resistance in and around Nasiriya.

Ten Marines were killed in action soon after the battle began Sunday, and Iraqi forces took at least five others prisoner, U.S. military authorities said. Varying numbers of Marines have been reported missing in the fighting.

Iraqi forces have employed guerrilla tactics to frustrate American attempts to take Nasiriya. Johnson said Marines have had trouble differentiating between friendly forces, civilians and enemy troops.

Several irregular Iraqi forces have fired on coalition forces then quickly returned to the city center and donned civilian clothes -- counting on the U.S.-led units not to fire on civilians -- Johnson said.

Some 40 to 50 Nasiriya civilians who have fled the city reported that Iraqi paramilitaries are forcing citizens to volunteer their sons to fight, according to a U.S. Marine officer.

"If [citizens] didn't [comply with the militia's orders], they said they would shoot a sibling," said Marine Capt. Peter Tabash, who speaks fluent Arabic. Tabash says a civilian told him Iraqi forces shot a 9-year-old boy because his family refused to cooperate with paramilitary groups.

CNN Correspondent Art Harris 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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