Sniper in warehouse turns patrol into fight

Compound: Unexpected resistance in an Iraqi neighborhood tests U.S. soldiers on all they had learned.

War In Iraq

April 02, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NEAR NAJAF, Iraq - A welcomed breeze had just begun to blow when the sniper began firing at the American soldiers advancing yesterday across open sand toward a walled compound.

The pop-pop-pop of his semiautomatic fire echoed off buildings, and the troops sought whatever small amount of cover they could find, diving behind mounds of sand and gravel, others pressing against the compound's high wall.

"Whoa, we got fire," said a startled soldier who was trailing 100 yards behind and watching from behind a crumbled wall. And by then what had been an uneventful patrol by 80 members of the 101st Airborne Division was transformed into an intense firefight.

These soldiers had overwhelming numbers and firepower, but their foe was unseen and on the move in a long factory building inside the compound.

For many of these men, including Bravo Company's 34- year-old commander, Capt. Eric Schuler, it was the first time anyone had ever shot at them. This would be a test of all they had learned.

"Calm down, gentlemen. Calm down, gentlemen," Sgt. Donald Rabideau said as soldiers scurried about preparing to return fire.

Barking into a radio handset, Schuler told platoon members who were caught in the open to continue moving cautiously toward the compound. "Don't go rushing in there," he said.

Within seconds, the troops fired at where they thought the sniper - or snipers - might be crouching in the factory. Booming grenade rounds punctuated the gunfire.

It was not how Schuler had thought the day would go. He had expected scant resistance in the area, less than a half-mile from the airfield that serves as a temporary base for his unit, the 3rd Battalion of the 327th Infantry Regiment. On Monday, the battalion seized the sprawling airfield without firing a shot.

One motivation for yesterday's patrol was to assure the Iraqis nearby that the Army meant them no harm, even if it did fire artillery near their mud-brick huts. Another reason was to search for sites used to fire mortars toward the airfield.

That an attempt to smooth things over with locals ended with a firefight underscores the challenge the U.S.-led military coalition faces in Najaf and throughout the country. Military planners expected Shiite Muslims to support the American effort to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein, but underestimated the resistance from fighters loyal to Hussein.

That is why the Army began to encircle Najaf, a holy city for Shiites, in hopes of isolating the fighters inside.

In midafternoon, Schuler led two platoons through a hole cut in the airfield's fence. It was a sunny day, not too hot, nice for a walk.

An Arabic-speaking interpreter joined the troops as did an Army civil affairs captain whose job was to learn the opinions of Iraqis and determine whether there were civilian casualties.

The platoons' first stop was a stucco house where goats, a donkey and a dozen or so dogs milled about in the dirt yard. Piles of tires and a bathtub sat in a ramshackle courtyard. Flies buzzed everywhere.

No one was home, and some soldiers got a little carried away in their quest to find a mortar cache.

"Take it easy on the house!" Schuler said. "It's good the way it is and doesn't need any more holes."

The march continued more or less single file through the neighborhood, where palm fronds and sand berms separated the dirt roads from people's houses, and where irrigation ditches made the landscape relatively lush. An herb garden filled the air with mint and other scents, but was fenced by a line of automobile door frames.

The farther the troops walked from the airfield, the higher the tension.

"I got civilians!" Lt. Chris Arne said at one point. He spotted an elderly man wearing a white robe and red headscarf who appeared in the distance but quickly went back in his home.

Then came word that a pickup truck spotted earlier had reappeared.

"Here's that white truck again," Arne said. "He's slowing down. I don't know what he's doing." The truck turned down a road and disappeared.

Moments later soldiers encountered six Iraqi men riding in a cart pulled by a single donkey. They stopped their progress to talk about Hussein and mortars.

The oldest man in the group jumped off the cart and began gesturing wildly, pointing at the sky and repeating "Allah" over and over. Adrian Holler, the translator, spoke to him.

"They know no soldiers," Holler said. Fedayeen? "No, no, no," they said, waving their hands. And, no, they had not seen any mortars. The men seemed relieved when Schuler allowed the donkey to proceed.

A few minutes later, the soldiers reached a large industrial building that had seen better days. Hundreds of shucked ears of corn lay scattered on the ground and a trailer had the words "bakery machinery" printed on it.

Scouts who had gone out ahead radioed to say that civilians were clustering in groups and talking with men in pickup trucks, and residents of Najaf were watching the soldiers from their balconies.

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