3 hours of `organized chaos' as tanks strike

U.S. troops face gunfire, grenades and explosions in sweep through capital

April 06, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BAGHDAD INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, Iraq -- Lt. Col. Eric C. Schwartz did not see much of Baghdad yesterday morning as his battalion of roughly 60 tanks, Bradleys and other armored vehicles churned along Route 8, rumbling through first an industrial, then a residential zone not far from the city's center.

All he recalled, when it was over, were the Iraqi soldiers, the artillery batteries, the trucks with machine guns attached, the wisp and blast of rocket-propelled grenades, the whiz of bullets, the fiery explosions of cars packed, he assumed, with explosives.

"Three hours of organized chaos," he said.

The colonel's battalion, part of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, rolled into the heart of Baghdad. The casualty count was unknowable, since the U.S. soldiers moved virtually without stopping, but in the estimate of the 2nd Brigade's commander, Col. David Perkins, more than 1,000 Iraqi fighters died yesterday.

For commanders here, the march was as much a psychological as strategic display of force that they hoped would hasten the fall of President Saddam Hussein.

Referring to reports on Iraqi television that U.S. forces had become bogged down in fighting around this airport and farther south, the division's commander, Maj. Gen. Buford C. Blount III, described yesterday's attack as a counterstrike in what he called "the IO campaign," or information operations.

For the soldiers -- members of the 2nd Brigade's 1st Battalion, 64th Armored Regiment -- it was a blistering gantlet of death and destruction that, they said, engulfed civilians as well as Iraqi fighters. It began just after dawn and ended when they arrived here at the airport, occupied by the division's 1st Brigade.

A tank commander, sitting exposed in his open hatch, was killed when a grenade or mortar exploded in his face, soldiers and officers said. At least six U.S. soldiers were wounded, some of them seriously.

One tank was destroyed, apparently by a rocket-propelled grenade, and had to be left behind in southern Baghdad after the crew was rescued. Other tanks and Bradleys were damaged, some pocked with the distinctive splash of rocket-propelled grenades and others charred by explosives.

A grenade hit Spc. Joseph A. Aiello's tank. "We were just riding along, and all of a sudden you could hear a `pow,'" he said. "The tank didn't really shake, but you could feel the vibration."

Sgt. Daniel R. Thompson, riding two tanks behind, saw the Iraqi who fired the grenade. He had fallen backward. "He had no legs," he said, but somehow managed to fire. Thompson's tank commander killed the man in a burst of machine-gun fire.

The four tanks of their platoon, part of Alpha Company, bear the names of the four airliners that were hijacked on Sept. 11, 2001. Sgt. 1st Class Eric R. Olson said they stenciled them on the cannons as a way to motivate themselves, even though he was not sure there was a direct connection between that attack and the one yesterday morning.

The brigade's march -- from the intersection of Routes 1 and 8, south of Baghdad -- is less than 15 miles long. The column's armored vehicles stopped only to rescue the crew of the destroyed tank and to capture a man they believed to be a colonel with the Republican Guard as he tried to drive on an off-ramp.

Pvt. Daniel L. Hamilton was in the back of the Bradley the colonel was put in. "He spoke some English," he said. "We asked him if he thought this was the right thing to do: taking out Saddam. Basically, he said it was."

Sgt. Anthony A. Cassady retold a scene that several others mentioned.

A family in a car stopped on Route 8's median, evidently hoping to endure the sudden eruption of fighting they had driven into. A large truck, with an antiaircraft gun, hurtled toward the column and was shot. It careered into the median and struck the family's car, bursting into flames.

As the U.S. column passed, a man, a woman and three children -- the youngest an infant -- struggled with their injuries and burns. The man, presumably the father, was on his back. One child's fingers were virtually severed.

"Being a dad myself, that's the hardest part," said Cassady, who operated a .50-caliber machine gun on the roof of an armored command vehicle.

"I've got six kids at home, and I can't imagine it. I'd just as soon die than see that happen to my kids."

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