A small village, a steady skirmish

Soldiers flex firepower and urge surrender, but Iraqi troops keep coming

War In Iraq

March 28, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

KIFL, Iraq - The concussive force of the tanks' rounds sucked everything off the sidewalks and into the middle of this village's narrow, dusty main road - "even people," the captain of a tank company who fought his way through it said.

The blasts shattered the plate glass window of a barber shop, next to the girls' elementary school, on the roof of which Iraqi troops had built a redoubt of sandbags. Inside the barbershop were three chairs and pictures of haircuts to choose from.

On the back wall, incongruously, hung a large poster of lower Manhattan, seen from the New Jersey waterfront, with the World Trade Center intact.

It was not one of the kind sold in souks across the Arab world, with a glaring Osama bin Laden or the airliners crashing into the twin towers. Rather, with palm trees and sand in the foreground, it was a picture of paradise - Manhattan on the Euphrates.

The tank captain had another word to describe his company's push through this village on Wednesday afternoon, just as the sun set in the middle of a sandstorm, turning the sky blood orange.

"A little piece of hell," said the captain, who did not want his name used, only his radio sign, Cobra Six. He has a wife home alone in Fort Benning, Ga., and he worries about her.

Army forces seized a toehold in this village beginning late Monday night. It was supposed to be a relatively simply blocking action, intended to prevent Iraqi reinforcements from reaching Najaf, a city of 100,000 across the Euphrates River about 10 miles away that the 3rd Infantry Division was in the process of encircling.

Fight far from over

Seventy-two hours later the division has a foothold, but the fight is far from over, tying down an ever-growing number of troops that had been preparing for a final assault on Baghdad, 75 miles to the north.

The Euphrates here runs gently south toward Najaf, its deep green waters lined on either side with marsh grass and groves of palms. It might have been a pastoral idyll except for the stuttering pop of gunfire yesterday.

Iraqi forces had tried to blow up the bridge early Tuesday, but the plastic explosives packed inside the columns only buckled the structure. Iraqis returned under darkness early yesterday to try again, hoping to isolate the forces of the 3rd Division that, for a third day, have been steadily crossing it.

Three Iraqis died on the bridge in a firefight that ensued. Their bodies lay in mangled heaps, wrenched by their last steps. One dead man, face down, clutched his eyeglasses in front of him.

The dead make a trail through town. A sedan, its paint burned off, rests where it had lurched to a stop in front of the barbershop. Inside were two charred skeletons.

Two more Iraqis died along the alley beside the girls' school. On either side of the road were still more burned, bullet-pocked cars and trucks, some with bodies inside, one with a soldier who had fallen half out.

The U.S. military's policy is to pack the dead in black bags to be taken to makeshift morgues for identification and, someday, repatriation. Here, there has been no time for it. "Every time we clear guys, more come," said Col. William F. Grimsley, commander of the division's 1st Brigade, whose troops are trying to hold several miles around Kifl.

"It sort of depends on how you define enemy," Capt. Darren A. Rapaport, commander of Charlie Company, part of the 2nd Battalion, 69th Armored Regiment, replied when asked if enemy forces were in the village.

"He could be right around the corner," he said, sitting atop his tank at the intersection where the bridge comes down into Kifl, its turret scanning the village's mud-brick buildings. "He could be up the street. He could be a few kilometers down the road."

A few minutes later, the deep thuds of explosive rounds fired by a Bradley fighting vehicle exploded nearby, bursting around some unseen enemy and sending a tuft of black smoke above the palms. Another Bradley stopped and turned, grinding steel tracks on the asphalt, and headed down Street 36, passing the town hall with an old Iraqi flag still flying above it.

"Son of a bitch is still shooting at us," said Lt. Col. Jeffrey Randall Sanderson of Waynesville, N.C., the commander of the 2nd Battalion, 69th Armored Regiment. "I'm not going to clear the village. I'm not going to put American soldiers in there. I'll be here a month and a half."

A stream of troops

Through the early morning, scores of Iraqi troops poured down the road from Baghdad. Intelligence reports said there were as many as 1,000. Some traveled in military jeeps, but most were in civilian trucks used as troop transports.

The battalion's lead units pushed north two miles up the road past the sign marking the entrance to the village. "Welcome to Kifl," it said. It was surrounded by tanks and armored vehicles, including ambulances for the wounded.

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