Marines face tough fight before prevailing
David J. Lynch, USA TODAY

MARINE COMBAT HEADQUARTERS, Southern Iraq U.S. Marines encountered their toughest fighting of the war so far, as Iraqi forces knocked out three tanks and two helicopter gunships in fighting southeast of Baghdad.

A mixed force of Iraqi regular army, Republican Guards and paramilitary fighters rained small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades on a Marine tank battalion advancing on the capital city. In a two-hour fight, the Marines initially backed off and called in air power and artillery to subdue the Iraqi defenders before reaching their objective on the outskirts of Baghdad.

For the first time, Marine infantrymen dismounted from their armored vehicles to sweep determined enemy soldiers from their defensive positions. Three U.S. tanks were disabled by RPG fire, including an M1A1 main battle tank. Two Cobra helicopters were driven from the fight by small arms fire but are expected to be back in action Saturday. Eight Marines were reported wounded.

When the fighting ebbed, the Marine unit had reached its final objective before the capital, a staging area code-named after a National Football League team. "It's a secure position on the east side of the (Tigris) river," said Col. Larry Brown, chief of operations for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. "It's a good position from which to base future operations."

With U.S. forces poised to fall upon the Iraqi capital, the nature of the fight is changing. Officers say they always expected to encounter the toughest fighting around Baghdad and so far that expectation is being met.

One reason the fighting is getting tougher is that the battlefield is shrinking from a country the size of California to a city. That both helps and hurts the U.S. invaders. Instead of spreading their limited number of unmanned spy planes across Iraq, commanders now can blanket the city with concentrated overhead surveillance. But at the same time, war planes are stacking up in the skies west of Baghdad waiting for their chance to strike military targets in and around the city.

"The battle space is getting quite small," says Lt. Col. Brian Delahaut, who helps coordinate airstrikes.

Commanders continue to ponder their strategy for eliminating the Iraqi regime. A continuing question is how much control the government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein still exercises over his forces.

Friday's fighting impressed some officers. Lt. Col. David Pere, the senior watch officer here, noted that the Iraqis fired volleys of RPGs against the Marine armor. "That takes command and control," he said. "That takes a boss who tells everybody to fire."

But other officers pointed to the success of two weeks of ferocious U.S. airstrikes, saying the bombardment has fractured the regime's ability to coordinate a defense. Most of the elite Republican Guard divisions ringing Baghdad have been reduced to a shadow of their original strength. The Medina Division, for example, is rated at just 20% combat effective. And the Iraqi efforts to stop the American drive into the capital generally are paltry and disorganized, officers say.

"It's like nobody's in charge at the top," said Col. Christopher Gunther, director of plans for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. "It's eerie."