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U.S. Marines destroy pocket of resistance in Umm Qasr

Clash 'escalated from a skirmish into a full-scale battle'

A U.S. Marine from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit returns to his position after an airstrike near the port city of Umm Qasr, Iraq.

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UMM QASR, Iraq (CNN) -- U.S. Marines waged a four-hour firefight with pockets of Iraqi troops in the southern city of Umm Qasr on Sunday, a day after British troops captured the strategically important port.

The clash ended with a quick airstrike from a Harrier jet. A staff sergeant from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit called the incident "effectively over" and said Marines were heading out to pick up prisoners of war.

Coalition forces moved into Umm Qasr, Iraq's only Persian Gulf port, Saturday and began preparing it as a hub for shipments of humanitarian relief, but Iraqi resistance remained in some areas, including a concrete building not far from the harbor.

"We had been receiving sporadic fire from that location for the last two days," Staff Sgt. Nick Lerma said after the battle was over. "This morning when sunrise came up, we noticed a couple of silhouettes of bodies up in the window, and that was the first visual we'd had instead of just shadows."

Lerma said the people in the windows signaled to four people on the ground, and those four "took the posture" to fire.

"We let off the first burst, and they returned fire," he said.

Beneath steel frame obelisks carrying electric lines across the desert landscape, Marines scurried into defensive positions. They fired machine gun bursts and Javelin missiles, one of which sailed over the building and a second that scored a direct hit.

"Then it became very apparent there was a lot of movement in that area," Lerma said. "We began engaging with machine guns. People were popping out of everywhere."

The Iraqi force, the sergeant said, was larger than the 15th MEU initially thought.

"It rapidly escalated from a skirmish into a full-scale battle," he said.

Four U.S. M1A1 Abrams tanks rolled into position and drew fire from both inside and outside the building.

The American tanks fired into the building, took return fire, and eventually pulled some distance away.

As the standoff continued, Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Sahef said the Iraqi "heroes at Umm Qasr" were teaching coalition forces a lesson.

"Those Iraqi fighters are slapping those gangsters on the face, and then when they flee, they will kick their backsides," Sahef said at a news conference in Baghdad.

As Sahef finished speaking, aircraft were heard overhead at Umm Qasr, and the Marines pulled back to wait out the airstrike.

After a pair of loud explosions, heavy black smoke billowed out of a building in the distance, and the battlefield fell silent. A second airstrike was ordered, then canceled, and word spread that the Marines had prisoners.

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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