As troops push into Baghdad, they arm selves with caution

At each turn, in each face, a possible threat appears

War in Iraq

April 07, 2003|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

WITH THE U.S. MARINES, Iraq - The U.S. Marines stormed yesterday into local headquarters buildings for Saddam Hussein's ruling Baath Party in a suburb east of Baghdad, knocking down doors, rifling through files, looking for arms caches and clues that would keep them on the trail of the Republican Guard and key political leaders.

Outside one building, a dog was barking. Marines surrounded the large complex, which appeared to be a social hall with a theater, offices and clay tennis courts.

The Marines rattled the locked doors. Outside, the dog was still barking.

They wrapped the doors with explosives. They blew, making an earthshaking noise. There was no one inside, but the dog continued to make noise.

Fed up, one Marine walked up to the yellow-haired dog, squeezing the trigger twice. Then there was silence.

"He shot the dog?" asked one Marine. "I think I would have a harder time shooting that dog than shooting an Iraqi."

So began the Marines' first full day in the suburbs of Baghdad, where the enemy appeared to be nowhere and everywhere. After slogging north for weeks and experiencing some of the fiercest fighting of this war, members of 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines arrived in Baghdad's suburbs wary of civilians, Iraqi government buildings, cars and trucks - and apparently anything else, including dogs, that could be perceived as a threat.

On the roads, Iraqis walk or drive, waving white flags and going about their business. Some give the Marines the thumbs up or wave. On one patrol through a community of apartment complexes for oil workers, families chatted with the Marines and sold them cigarettes and a crate of Pepsi. One Marine received an invitation to dinner.

Nothing secure

Still, nothing here is secure, Marines say. On the road to Baghdad, the Marines faced a group of civilian-clothed men they said were jihad fighters from Syria, Egypt, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries. One Marine was killed and at least a half-dozen more were injured during a battle in which dozens of jihad fighters battled stubbornly until death. An M-1 Abrams tank was destroyed by a suicide car bomber or perhaps a hit from a rocket-propelled grenade.

In the 48 hours since the battle, the Marines remain confident but cautious about what may lie ahead if they are asked to go into the streets of Baghdad.

Everyone is a potential threat - men trying to sell the Marines cigarettes, families walking with water jugs down the road. Anyone now driving a car is considered suspect. So, it appeared, was the dog.

"It was better to be safe than sorry," an officer said, defending the shooting of the dog. The dog, another Marine said, might have tried to attack them.

The dog lived behind a complex where propaganda films might have been shown or where leaders wooed new party members, Marine intelligence officers say.

Inside another Baath Party building next door, a meeting hall was filled with white plastic chairs. The Marines kicked the doors in, tore down posters of Saddam Hussein and collected handfuls of Baath Party pins - part of many Marines' growing treasure chests of war souvenirs including Iraqi Army berets, sashes, uniforms and helmets.

But they also collected files with the addresses of party offices and party members.

"They found a lot of intelligence. How many of the Baath Party members there are, what they have and maybe where they are going," said Staff Sgt. Jorge Gonzalez, 35, of Los Angeles.

More weapons caches

Marines have also continued to find huge weapons caches all along the road to Baghdad and now in the suburbs. Less than 20 miles outside Baghdad, the Marines discovered new rocket propelled grenades, mortars, AK-47s and thousands of pairs of new black socks.

Large explosions - often mistaken for enemy artillery fire - were the sounds of piles of weapons being destroyed.

An amphibious assault vehicle and tanks crushed a pile of AK-47s to the cheers of a group of Marines waiting on the side of the road.

The socks, however, were far too valuable to a battalion of Marines with cases of trench foot to meet the same fate.

Lt. Col. Carl Mundy, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, seized the socks and distributed two pairs to every member of the battalion.

On Saturday, the Marines were allowed for the first time to shed their camouflage chemical suits, take sponge baths and air out after weeks living in damp clothes and shoes. Many sat out naked, sunning themselves in an open dirt field outside this community of small farm lots, palm trees and apartment complexes.

Here, about a dozen miles east of Baghdad, the fighter jets could be heard throughout the day making bombing runs over the capital. Huge plumes of black smoke were visible to the west. During the night artillery fire lighted up the sky and shook the ground.

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