Noose around capital gets tighter

Marines join forces encircling Iraqi city

War In Iraq

April 09, 2003|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

IN THE SUBURBS OF BAGHDAD, Iraq - The Marines took a three-hour drive yesterday, fording a tributary of the Tigris River, rumbling their troop carriers through the yards of family homes and setting up camp at a traffic oval a few miles from the center of the capital.

It was, given the neighborhood, a fine drive.

The Marines met little resistance, thanks to the artillery fire, Cobra attack helicopters and reconnaissance groups that had cleared the route of Iraqi armored vehicles, tanks, paramilitary fighters in private cars and the Republican Guard. The thunder of artillery could be heard throughout the journey. Columns of thick black smoke rose from fires around the suburbs.

Along the road, military helmets, canteens, weapons, uniforms, blankets and food supplies were strewn near the entrances to fighting holes and sentry posts, and in military barracks set up in half-built homes.

Children gestured with a thumbs-up, and some of the adults waved pieces of white cloth. But that was nearly the extent of friendly contact between the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines and Iraqi civilians.

The Marines' arrival in the eastern suburbs of Baghdad was another link in the chain of U.S. forces forming a ring that war planners intend to tighten like a noose around the remnants of Saddam Hussein's government.

American forces arrived from every direction, many of the units engaging in bursts of combat. Army columns came from the west, Marines from the east. The air space was crowded with almost every kind of American and British bomber.

The Marines paused only briefly at the tributary of the Tigris. Herds of cattle cooled themselves in the murky waters. Past the far bank, the palm trees thinned out. Houses were clustered. The Marines entered the eastern outskirts of Baghdad, and there was no one there to stop them. They moved cautiously past a military outpost and a collection of shoddy brick homes.

At an intersection with a main road leading into the capital, however, the Marines were met by hundreds of Iraqi young men - many half-dressed and shoeless. They are thought to be deserters from the Iraqi military who, until moments before the Marines arrived, were active-duty fighters. They waved to the Americans and sought help with wounds.

In the road were craters large enough to fit a car or two, the results of artillery rounds. A charred minivan was parked in the street, its owner dead in the driver's seat.

One man with a goatee rushed up to the Marines, gesturing at a giant painting of Saddam Hussein.

In broken English, the man told them, "He kill my family." Then the man rushed toward the painting and tried to tear it down.

"He took off his shoe and threw it at [Hussein's] face," said Cpl. Rob Gilbert, 25, of Reno, Nevada, who sat at the Marines' defensive lines slumped over his rifle.

With the help of a friend, the man pulled the billboard-sized painting to the ground and, by all accounts, walked off a much relieved man.

"It's nice to finally see some reward for the work we're doing. We've been doing something for the benefit of the people of Iraq," said Gilbert.

In front of him, dozens of Iraqis filled the street, doing something for themselves. They were looting a battle-damaged store that sold appliances and auto parts. A man tugged a refrigerator down the street. Men shouldered new car tires and truck tires. A boy ran away with a package of brake fluid.

They gave the thumbs-up to the Marines, who stood at their posts.

Most Marines say that if the war stopped now and they saw no more of Baghdad, they would be very happy. They were given an easy ride into Baghdad's suburbs, but they know that the closer they get to downtown, the more dangerous the fighting can become.

The toughest Marines grow nervous at talk of urban combat.

While training in urban warfare at George Air Force Base in Victorville, Calif., before the war, they learned how easy it is to defend a city and how difficult it can be to attack one. The invading force can sustain casualties as high as 80 percent, the Marines say.

"They sent an entire battalion to get us, and we were shredding them," Cpl. Jason Burrier III, 31, of Dallas, said, recalling an exercise in which his company defended a city. "If we go in there, it's going to be worse than anything we've seen so far."

"Let the Army do it," said Lance Cpl. Kris Spencer, 21, of Fort Scott, Kansas. "I'm glad I'm not there."

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