View Full Version : Battle continues; troops brace for urban combat

03-24-03, 06:28 AM
March 23, 2003

Battle continues; troops brace for urban combat

By Sean D. Naylor
Times Staff Writer

AS SAMAWAH, Iraq (March 23, 2003) — Fighting between U.S. and Iraqi forces continued to rage Sunday along the banks of the Euphrates River as U.S. Marines and the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized) tried to maintain the momentum of their high-speed assault toward Baghdad.
In An Nasiriyah, Americans saw their costliest action so far — about 10 Marines were killed and 12 soldiers were missing, at least four of them prisoners of the Iraqis.

Sixty miles upriver in this city, the 3rd Infantry Division’s 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment fought hard Saturday to gain control of two bridges over a canal on the city’s southern fringes. It was a fight that showed just how hard this campaign may turn out to be.

By Saturday night they controlled both bridges, but were still receiving small-arms fire near the westernmost bridge.

Overnight and into Sunday morning, the rest of the 3rd Infantry Division used the bridges as it pushed north. But one unit — 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment — took a wrong turn. Instead of skirting the town’s southern edge, it got into a brief but fierce fight with Iraqi forces closer to the center of the city. Red tracer rounds could be seen arcing through the night sky.

The intensity of the resistance at As Samawah surprised the squadron commander, Lt. Col. Terry Ferrell.

“In my honest opinion, they have a much larger force than predicted,” he said. “I think there’s some kind of force unknown to me at this time that’s potentially heavy in nature. Every time [my helicopters] go north of the river we take heavy anti-aircraft fire.”

Ferrell suspects there is something important in or near the town that motivated the fierce defense. The provincial capital of 750,000 people is 150 miles south of Baghdad on the Euphrates River.

Army Lt. Gen. John Abizaid, deputy commander of U.S. Central Command, was asked about published reports that Iraqi generals taken prisoner had told Americans there was a chemical and biological center at An Najaf, 75 miles to the northwest of where Ferrell was fighting.

“I will not confirm that report,” Abizaid said. “We have two Iraqi general officers we have taken prisoner and they are providing us with information.”

So far in the fight, Ferrell believes his squadron has killed at least 150 Iraqi troops. Three of his men have been wounded, none killed. They destroyed numerous military transports, three artillery pieces and a tank, he said.

“We fought like a son of a *****,” he said.

The fight began Saturday, when 3-7 Cav’s C Troop had a fierce shootout with Iraqi troops in a military compound a couple of hundred meters north of the western bridge across the canal. Troop commander Capt. Jeff McCoy estimated that his troops killed about 40 Iraqi soldiers Saturday. But a few holdouts remained in the compound, aiming sporadic small-arms fire at nearby 3-7 soldiers, so Sunday morning McCoy launched a platoon-level assault on the compound with a combination of Bradley fighting vehicles and Abrams tanks.

By the time his force got to the compound, McCoy said there were only “five or six” Iraqi fighters inside. His troops killed three and captured one. One of the three killed was captured alive, but mortally wounded, according to McCoy.

“He had a chest wound,” the captain said. “We tried to give him care, but he died. The other prisoner taken in the compound was unhurt, and surrendered when he pretty much knew his goose was cooked.”

There were more fireworks when the C Troop cavalrymen blew a cache of captured munitions as they withdrew from the compound. The blast triggered a much larger series of explosions that destroyed six nearby fuel tanks. These erupted with a massive boom, sending orange flames shooting hundreds of feet into the air, and a column of thick black smoke thousands of feet into the blue sky.

Meanwhile, U.S. forces spotted an Iraqi tank and some dismounted troops in a rail yard across the highway from the compound. Ferrell, the 3-7 commander, and his staff, including some attached Air Force enlisted tactical air controllers, worked feverishly to coordinate an air strike on the yard. Initial reports said the tank was a T-72, but McCoy said later that it was a T-55 on a rail car.

Once Ferrell was sure no U.S. forces were dangerously close to the target area, two A-10 Thunderbolt ground-attack aircraft appeared in the skies overhead. From about 8,000 feet, each A-10 released a 500-pound “dumb bomb.” A few seconds later, a double thunderclap echoed from the direction of the rail yard, as two large plumes of gray smoke climbed above it. The watching cavalrymen and airmen cheered loudly.

The A-10s then each made two “gun passes,” the buuuuurp of their 30mm cannon followed by the deep crackling sound of their rounds raking targets in the yard. The pilots reported that they’d seen lots of dismounted infantry moving among revetments in the yard. Now, though, there was “nothing moving.”

U.S. troops have so far suffered no casualties here, and taken few prisoners. But they have gathered potentially valuable intelligence from those Iraqi soldiers who have surrendered. One sorry-looking Iraqi soldier “low-crawled” from his position early this morning and gave himself up. C Troop 1st Sgt. Roy Griggs said the prisoner was an enlisted soldier who was wearing only a T-shirt, pants and socks to protect himself against the wet ground and cold night air. Griggs’ soldiers first had medics check the prisoner out, then gave him food and water, “just to show we’re in good faith here.”

The treatment apparently had the desired effect. “He’s in good spirits,” Griggs said. “He’s telling us to give him a gun and he’ll go with us to fight Saddam.”


03-24-03, 06:29 AM
The prisoner said most regular Iraqi army soldiers want to surrender, but have been dissuaded from doing so by leaflets circulated by their officers and the Baath Party saying their families will be killed if they give themselves up. “They’re very concerned for their families,” Griggs said.

The prisoner also told U.S. interrogators that Iraqi officers in the town travel incognito, and detailed the locations of Iraqi military and political leadership facilities in As Samawah, Ferrell added.

On Sunday, Ferrell used air strikes to destroy the Baath party headquarters in As Samawah, a four-story, block-long red brick building.

At about 1 p.m. Sunday, Ferrell said he planned to conduct “offensive operations” within the next six hours, and drive north of the Euphrates. But in a talk with his troop commanders he reiterated his view that their enemy was not to be taken lightly in the hours and days ahead.

“They’re fighting and they’re fighting hard, there’s no joke about it,” he said. “We’re gonna fight better and harder.”

McCoy said that in his opinion most of the Iraqis who fought U.S. forces today were irregular troops, not regular soldiers. “We think we killed a lot of the regular army off yesterday,” he said, sitting in the shade of a Bradley fighting vehicle during a lull in the fighting. “Today we think we’re seeing a lot of their militia infiltrate through.”

For the second consecutive day, McCoy expressed his pride in his soldiers. “I have without doubt the best cavalry troop in the world, and yesterday confirmed it,” he said. “It’s very humbling for me to be around the professional soldiers that I have. Everybody did their job yesterday, to say the least.”

Another captain who saw a lot of action on Saturday was Darin Griffin, who commands D Troop, an OH-58D Kiowa Warrior armed scout helicopter unit. Both of 3-7 Cav’s Kiowa Warrior troops flew multiple missions yesterday, looking for Iraqi troops and engaging targets whenever possible. They received very heavy small arms, machine gun, rocket-propelled grenade and anti-aircraft fire in reply.

Pointing at a map of As Samawah, Griffin indicated the two bridges over the Euphrates River in the north of the city. “If you drew a big circle around those two bridges, I got shot at everywhere I went [in that circle],” he said. “They should put a big skull and crossbones there [on the map]. It’s bad ju-ju.”

Three of the six helicopters Griffin led into battle yesterday were hit by Iraqi gunfire, although none were forced down. “I’ve got multiple bullet holes in my helicopter,” he said. “I had ‘Black Hawk Down’ images in my mind. I was thinking, I’ve only got 30 rounds of 5.56 [for the M4 rifle shared by a Kiowa Warrior’s two pilots] and my 9mm [pistol].”

Even though by press time most of the ground combat here had been around the edges of As Samawah, the battle has confirmed some of the U.S. military’s worst fears about fighting in an urban environment. Yesterday, Iraqi troops appeared to be forcing women and children into a building near the military compound McCoy’s troops were engaging, in an apparent effort to prevent themselves from being shot at. Griggs said the prisoner his soldiers took this morning had fled from that building, and confirmed this assumption.

Griffin gave a similar account of an encounter from the air. “I ran into a bunch of kids waving at me, and 20 feet away, there were three dudes with AKs shooting at me,” he said.

Like many U.S. personnel, Air Force Staff Sgt. Michael Shropshire, an enlisted tactical air controller attached to C Troop, expressed surprise at the stubbornness with which Iraqi forces were resisting invasion. “I thought maybe it’d be a pushover, but you’ve got to respect these guys,” he said. “They’re fighting. But we’ll do what American forces have done in the history of our country — just push through ’em and frikkin’ win.”

With the city still largely in Iraqi hands, U.S. forces here are facing a potentially even more bitter fight if they decide they need to take the town. Few are in any doubt about the potential challenges that would await them.

“I hate city fighting,” said McCoy, glancing northward toward As Samawah.

Ferrell told his captains that there were “suicide bombers” in a compound on the north side of the town, as if to hammer home the message that they must be ruthless in combat. “Do not hesitate to pull those triggers,” he said. “Do not hesitate.”