Near Baghdad, U.S. troops encounter a `remarkable' foe

`Jihad' forces from Syria, Egypt, Marine officers say

War In Iraq

April 05, 2003|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AL MUHAYDI AS SALIH, Iraq - It was early morning, and the blue skies over this farming community less than 20 miles south of Baghdad turned black and hazy with the smoke of burning oil.

It was also the beginning of one of the longest, hardest days to date for members of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. Before it was over, one Marine was killed in action by a sniper and at least two others were injured.

An M-1 Abrams tank - considered the safest ride in Iraqi because so little could destroy it - was left smoldering on the highway, its ammunition shooting and spraying like a fireworks show. Dozens of enemy fighters lay dead in a farmer's field, and dozens more were captured.

The Marines were not battling the Iraqi army or Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard, but a group of well-trained fighters from Syria, Egypt and perhaps other countries, Marine officers said.

They were an enemy who fought with more will than any other fighters the Marines have encountered so far.

The "jihad" fighters, as Marines dubbed them yesterday, wore civilian clothes or full-length black robes. They were equipped with brand new ammunition and some of the best sniper rifles and armaments money can buy. They set pools of oil on fire, masking the skies with eye-stinging black smoke.

More than anything, however, they showed determination as fighters.

"They wouldn't give up," said Capt. Ethan Bishop, commander of India Company, which lost one of its Marines in a firefight yesterday. "It was a tough fight, and they are still out there." The Marine was shot in the abdomen by a sniper while trying to clear the enemy from an open field outside this town.

The Marines appeared a little stunned by the resistance.

"It was very intense. I lost of one my best friends," said Lance Cpl. Jeromy Pilon, 20, of Spokane, Wash., who was preparing for a night on watch after the battle. "I thought it was going to be a little more relaxed."

Until yesterday the Marines had pushed north at a brisk pace and encountered less resistance than expected from elements of the Iraqi army and Republican Guard. On Wednesday the Americans had seized the city of Numaniyah on the banks of the Tigris River, causing hundreds of Iraqi fighters to flee.

The next day they pushed aggressively into Aziziyah, where the fighting was more intense but short-lived. By Thursday evening, the town's residents poured into the streets and welcomed the Americans with cheers and smiles. The residents ransacked the Baath Party headquarters, looting an air conditioner, microwave and televisions and radios before burning pictures of Saddam Hussein.

Yesterday morning, the Marines left the outskirts of Aziziyah with high spirits for what they assumed would be a quick drive to Baghdad. They drove quickly in their amphibious assault vehicles, their tracks grinding along the paved highway. Along the way, families stood in front of their homes waving scraps of white cloth - symbols of surrender and, so it seems, support for the Americans.

Approaching one town, the Marines decided to drive through at top speed, whatever the resistance. Their orders were to fire on anyone who would dare oppose them. The tactic is nicknamed "spray and pray." It worked. The Marines pushed through without a problem. Enemy tanks and trucks were parked along the roadside, smoldering from attacks by Marine tanks and attack helicopters.

Farther north, however, their task became more difficult. The oil fires set by the Iraqis reduced visibility. When four M-1 Abrams tanks entered this farming village, a suicide car bomber drove into the lead tank, causing a huge explosion of ammunition and armaments. Several Marines were injured, but officers could offer no details.

The attack from the jihad fighters came from both sides of the road. On one side was an Iraqi military training facility; a farmer's field was on the other. A Cobra attack helicopter floated above, firing missiles.

After launching a mortar barrage and an air attack, the Marines began sweeping out the enemy from both sides of the field.

From a distance, the Marines' movement looked like the movement of a very slow windshield wiper sweeping from one side of the field to the other.

Almost instantly the Marine was killed and two others were injured. As the Marines moved closer, they peppered enemy soldiers hidden in the tall grasses of the field with grenades and gunfire.

The jihadists fought back bravely and cleverly. Many of them pretended to be dead when the Marines approached.

"Then they would pop up two or three feet away from you and shoot at you," said 1st Lt. Alex D'Amico, executive officer of India Company. "These guys fought to the death, and they died in the process. The resistance that they showed was truly remarkable compared to other forces we've encountered. The fight today was particularly brutal."

The fighting continued for several hours until the early evening, when the Marines were pulled out and a mortar attack was called in. Round after round of explosives shook the farmland. A donkey stood calmly at the edge of the field, unmoved by the destruction around it.

The Marines retreated back to the road, where a water line was spraying long arcs of water from dozens of bullet holes. The Marines, who have not seen a shower in three weeks, took a moment to douse their heads in the water.

By nightfall the enemy started firing at the Marines again. There were new concerns about suicide attacks on the Marines. One suspected bomber had been stopped driving toward the battalion's command center.

The Marines camped near the battlefield. As they nodded off to sleep, one officer asked his men to be wary of any movement near their camp during the night:

"If it's out there, kill it."

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