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SOUTHERN IRAQ — An Iraqi soldier captured in the battle for An Nasiriyah claims that Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons are stored closer to Baghdad.

The soldier, a major, was captured by members of the 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment. The battalion is part of Task Force Tarawa, which has been fighting in An Nasiriyah for nearly a week.

Marines briefly interrogated the 35-year-old soldier when he and another soldier surrendered along the highway into the city, said Capt. Aaron Robertson, intelligence officer for 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marines.

The captured Iraqi officer was in uniform, wearing a sweater and beret. Marines flex-cuffed both prisoners before whisking them away in an armored Humvee.

The man claims to be a chemist, Robertson said.

“He said nothing of the chemical capabilities [near here],” Robertson said. “He claimed most of the chemical munitions are being stored closer to Baghdad.”

The man is now in the hands of the Marine intelligence personnel, who are interrogating him, Robertson said.

The battle for An Nasiriyah, about 200 miles south of Baghdad, began Sunday. The Marines’ objective is to seize two bridges over the Euphrates River needed to keep moving troops and supplies north toward Baghdad.

After hearing reports of thousands of Iraqi soldiers surrendering in the early days of war, Marines expected little resistance in An Nasiriyah. But the battle has proved to be more difficult. The forces opposing the Marines aren’t conventional forces, but groups known to be loyal to Saddam Hussein.

The captured Iraqi major said “Ba’ath Party irregulars and Fedayeen Saddam forces” are taking part in the fight, according to Robertson.

“They were well organized and well prepared,” Robertson said. They were ready to fight, and they will fight to the death, he added.

Robertson said the Iraqi irregulars were dressed in civilian clothes and heavily equipped. They are armed with tanks, mortars, anti-aircraft guns as well as rifles. Many have been fighting from bunkers in the city.

— Stars and Stripes reporter Mark Oliva is embedded with members of the 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment, which is fighting in southern Iraq.

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