Taking Najaf airstrip proves to be a welcome anticlimax

For unit of 101st Airborne, first foray into combat `doesn't really count'

War In Iraq

April 01, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NEAR NAJAF, Iraq - The four M1 Abrams tanks gnashed through the sand at first light, engines whining and treads click-clacking along. They were the sounds of an attack.

The tanks were leading the way so that Lt. Col. Ed Palekas and his battalion could seize a vast airfield with a 2-mile runway. Before ordering the men forward, though, Palekas paused to speak to a 24-year-old soldier named Aaron Manis.

"Manis, you OK? You look a little nervous."

"First time out, sir," Manis said.

Palekas smiled. "Me, too. And I've been in the Army 19 years."

The war in Iraq began in earnest yesterday for this unit of the 101st Airborne Division. With little advance notice, the 3rd Battalion of the 327th Infantry Regiment learned it had been ordered to capture the airstrip near this mostly Shiite city of more than 400,000 people, and it would do it on foot.

Palekas, an intense 41-year- old, expected that his 700 men would face snipers, mortar rounds and mines in what would be the first combat experience for nearly all of them.

What they experienced instead was akin to a mildly nerve-racking walk in the desert. The soldiers encountered frightened Iraqi farmers but no enemy soldiers, little fire (two mortar rounds that landed harmlessly) and few problems.

For Manis and other soldiers hoping to shake their fear of combat, the day did not quell all the anxieties. Twelve hours after starting for the airfield, Manis lay sprawled on his back.

He felt exhausted but not quite prepared for the next time.

"This," he said, "doesn't really count."

The morning had begun with promise and a kind of excitement. After nearly a monthlong wait, the battalion - finally - had a mission. Taking the airfield would part of a broader effort by the 101st Airborne and other U.S. forces to assert control over Najaf, where fedayeen fighters loyal to Saddam Hussein have attacked U.S. troops.

Palekas learned of the mission Sunday and did not even have time to issue a formal order.

Soldiers woke at 3 a.m. at their camp 20 miles from Najaf. Trucks with their headlights turned off rolled through the darkness toward the city lights and the starting point, a street just south of the airfield.

The street was quiet except for dogs yelping in the shadows.

As dawn turned the hazy sky purple, low houses came into view. Along the road stood burned out cars and an ancient-looking lean-to that one soldier said "looked like something Jesus was born in."

"All right, guys," said Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas Woodhams, walking the lines before launching the 6 a.m. attack. "Lord help the fedayeen. They're going to need it."

Palekas sprinkled in his own informal pep talks: "All right, boys." "Your day in history!"

It began with 105 mm artillery rounds timed to land as the tanks crashed through a barbed-wire fence. The thunderous blasts sent birds flying and columns of smoke rising in the distance.

A recorded announcement urged residents to stay put, though a parade of a dozen Iraqis soon formed just beyond the airfield fence.

Commanders yelled at their troops to back away and to point their weapons away so as not to scare the Iraqis, and Woodhams and several others waved. Some of the Iraqi men waved back excitedly, and one held a white flag on a stick, as if he had been expecting the soldiers.

This when the potential for terrible mistakes was probably at its highest, as was proved later in the day when soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division killed seven women and children riding in a car that failed to stop at a checkpoint on the outskirts of town.

Everything went well for Palekas' 3rd Battalion. When the civilians were ushered out of harm's way, Palekas focused on the airstrip, littered with the hulks of vehicles to make it unusable. After a robot searched for mines, two armored bulldozers chugged over to begin clearing the runway.

Palekas focused his attention on the mud-brick houses ringing the concrete runway. Those buildings were home to farmers who moved in and planted onions and other crops in the dusty soil using irrigation systems. All told, easily more than 200 people lived on the farms.

None of the soldiers knew whether someone might be hiding there with a rocket-propelled grenade. Soldiers moved hut to hut, sometimes putting male occupants in plastic handcuffs until they were determined not to be a threat. One man waited patiently as a little girl who appeared to be his daughter placed a lighted cigarette to his lips.

Ten men were detained, Palekas said, because they had several thousand rounds of ammunition and large sums of cash. Eight others were held because their identification cards seemed unusual, though there was no indication any had links to the Iraqi regime. But most were quickly turned loose.

There were moments of tension. When a man was spotted hiding in a tower just beyond the airfield, Palekas told a tank commander, "If you see him again, pop him." Nothing came of it.

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