Iraqi soldiers abandon field, materiel as Marines approach

U.S. forces easily take crossing of Tigris River

War in Iraq

April 03, 2003|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NUMANIYAH, Iraq - In the shade of a grove of palm trees along the banks of the Tigris River, Lt. Casey Brock stood yesterday over a pile of Iraqi rocket-propelled grenades and pondered their destructive power.

"You are looking at 20 dead Marines for each one of these," said Brock of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, pulling open box after box of the slender cone-shaped rockets capable of piercing through the Marines' armored amphibious assault vehicles.

Nearby lay hundreds of abandoned mortars, an anti-aircraft gun, three tanks, stashes of AK-47s and other ammunition stores.

These were the weapons that a 900-member Iraqi army brigade and elements of Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard had planned to use yesterday to defend this city at a bend in the Tigris against approaching Marines.

Instead, the Iraqis fled or surrendered with barely a fight, allowing the Marines to capture a river crossing that leads to Baghdad.

"There was a large concentration of forces who were unwilling to fight," Brock said. "It could have been a very different day for us."

The Marines would like to have more days like this one.

"The Republican Guard is folding in on itself, which is a good sign," Brock said.

Capt. Ethan Bishop, commander of India Company, was no less optimistic.

"I was expecting more resistance. Their accuracy of fire was poor. Their morale was poor," he said. "Their fighting spirit is not intense like the Marines."

Advancing on foot

Members of the battalion had woken before dawn to begin their assault. Pairs of Cobra attack helicopters circled overhead, spotting and firing on Iraqi troop carriers and the tanks that rumbled out to defend the town.

The Marines stepped off their assault vehicles and advanced on foot, combing the wheat crops outside town for signs of Iraqi soldiers. The main threat was the rocket-propelled grenade - a simple, shoulder-launched weapon that the Marines have reason to fear. A well-aimed shot at an amphibious troop carrier could kill everyone inside.

The Marines moved deliberately, house to house to house. Nearly all the residents were gone, but they had left behind caches of ammunition and weapons. In the sky, the Cobras fired missiles at an Iraqi troop carrier, a fuel truck and several tanks.

What surprised the Marines was the amount of quality equipment and weapons that the Iraqis abandoned as they fled. A new Mercedes truck containing high-tech communications gear was parked under an overpass. The Marines tossed a grenade inside.

At the edge of the bridge crossing the emerald green waters of the Tigris, the Iraqis walked away from three T-55 tanks. The barrels of all three were also destroyed with explosives.

Two anti-aircraft guns were left standing at the entrance to town. A third was left unmanned in a playground. Supply trucks were parked by the roadside with detailed defensive maps discarded on the passenger seats.

The main Iraqi military encampment appeared as if the Iraqis had walked away and would return any minute. The soldiers' blankets lay beside their fighting holes. A plastic bag contained several pieces of flat bread. The ammunition boxes were opened, as if soldiers were preparing to load their weapons. The anti-aircraft gun pointed to the sky.

The Marines suspect that most of the brigade changed into civilian clothes and disappeared into city's palm-lined streets. No Marine was injured in the attack. At least 13 Iraqis were taken prisoner, and an undetermined number of Iraqis were killed.

Demolition experts spent the afternoon destroying heaps of weapons and ammunition. Each explosion brought smiles and a few cheers from the Marines. Each explosion meant there were fewer weapons available to the Iraqis.

By evening, it was time to move on. The Marines gathered souvenirs: a bullet-riddled poster of Saddam Hussein, anti-aircraft rounds, Iraqi cigarettes. Then they crossed the sleepy, green waters of the Tigris to continue their drive north.

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