Repack, Keep Quiet and be Patient
I crossed into Iraq from northern Kuwait in a marine Amphibious Assault Vehicle or AAV, on March 21, packed inside with 19 marines like sardines wearing heavy bio-chemical suits, helmets and flack jackets. There was barely enough room to move one’s leg around to restore circulation. We stared blankly at 700 rounds of stacked .50 caliber ammunition in green metal cases, wooden crates of M-16 ammo, boxes of MRE’s and water bottles piled in the length of the isle.
Whenever the AAV hit a dip or made a sharp turn, everything in the isle went flying. Officers barked “to fix the friggin thing” before heads were busted. One never heard the word “please;” it was do it or else.
Our first mission for the 3rd Battalion, 4th Regiment (1st Marine Division), would be a dawn attack of the Basra International Airport. I hadn’t slept during the ten-hour journey, and when I heard the word “airport,” I knew that it would involve long sprints - my legs had no strength to run. With a “grunt unit” (mechanized infantry), we were to be dropped 800-1000 yards from the main terminal building, and there was virtually no place to take cover. Iraqi Army resistance was expected.
But it never materialized; the Basra airport was deserted. Our AAV ramps did not even go down; M1 Abrams tanks and Cobra gunships did all the work. Up the road, blown-out Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles were left in flaming heaps or charred carbon hulks. The 19- to 22-year-old marines inside were overflowing with energy, like caged bird dogs bouncing off the walls, waiting for the hunt to start. They remained that way for the next 3-4 days. Then, as with the rest of the near month spent with 3/4, everything changed. There would never be any fixed plans.
The next day I jumped to a soft-skinned
Humvee with the battalion’s sergeant major and a two-man sniper
team. It offered more mobility and a chance to jump off and chase things.
The sergeant major never sat idle, and he pushed the marines wherever
he thought they needed help or a verbal jolt. It offered me a closer
look at the workings of the battalion – including access to imminent
attack plans. I was grateful to be away from the AAV’s, to be
able to stretch my long, cramped legs and to get a bit of distance from
the friendly but largely headless world of marine grunts. Christ, they’re
The battalion’s commander, Lt. Col. Bryan McCoy, was vigilant about finding targets to attack along our route to Baghdad. Waiting outside Diwaniya for parts of the Marine 7th Regiment and Army convoys to pass, McCoy secured orders to attack the city’s eastern side and probe its defenses for Saddam Fedayeen irregulars. A marine artillery battery had started sending several dozen 155mm shells into a 500-yard long area of suspected Iraqi trenches and a stretch near the highway cloverleaf where positioned ourselves. Iraqi small arms fire started to come in. I wondered why they just didn’t flee or surrender: Didn’t they have the smarts to see nine M1 Abrams tanks and infantry breathing down on them? A few managed to escape but in two hours, close to 15 Iraqis were killed, twenty captured and any buildings that housed snipers or men launching RPG’s were destroyed by tank fire. Wasn’t much I could do with a camera from such a distance – much better for sound and video - but once the infantry moved into the enemy’s trenches and bunkers, all my senses went on alert. By early afternoon, we pulled out and moved north the following day.
The marines were not supposed to attack and secure areas. We were to attack targets and then move on. Marines are trained extensively in urban warfare. Farther up the highway, at a Ba’ath party headquarters in the small city of At Tahrir on March 29, the marines kicked in nearly all the doors of a three-story building, recovered armloads of documents and found two hapless Iraqi policemen hiding in a nearby bunker. Thankfully, there were no booby traps. We returned to the city the next morning to destroy two Iraqi Army anti-aircraft weapons and rushed through At Tahrir’s streets watching the tenuous smiles on the resident’s faces. Were they happy? Perhaps. Were they also happy to see us go? Undoubtedly.
Moving northwest to Al Kut, the battalion ran into its stiffest resistance. The attack plan had the marines moving close to the city’s center without getting bogged down with the well dug-in Iraqi positions. A mile away from the city’s main intersection, Iraqi irregulars popped up in a palmetto grove and started firing RPG’s and small arms at our column of tanks and AAV’s. For a few seconds, no one seemed to know where the firing had come from. Another RPG hit the vehicle in front but bounced off and died – a dud. The tanks in the lead backed up and turned their turrets 90 degrees into the grove and began firing at small bunkers 150-200 feet away. Infantry dismounted and took up a forward moving line, two tanks moved down the enemy’s flank and got behind the Iraqis. Grenades were tossed down foxholes wherever the marines saw the enemy hiding. An Iraqi T-62 tank was blown apart and burning in the far corner, a cacophony of shouting and barked-out orders could be heard in between the bursts of gunfire and grenades. In 45 minutes the grove was taken. One marine went down and eventually died that evening, 12-15 Iraqis were killed in the grove, and more died trying to flee in the river behind. By early afternoon, the vehicles had turned around, refueled from a nearby Iraqi petrol station and returned west to the main Baghdad highway.
Within two days, the battalion and regiment commanders met to map their approach into Baghdad. A canal 10 miles south of Baghdad along Highway 8 had to be crossed. Artillery was situated to eliminate any Iraqi fixed positions the drones had spotted from the air. Once the approach to the Nahr Diyala canal started, we ran into sporadic Iraqi firing and saw that half the main bridge had been blown by the retreating Iraqis, rendering the bridge impassable. It took the Army Corps of Engineers a day to arrive and most of a day to fix a pontoon bridge crossing.
On April 6, the battalion crossed the blown bridge and vehicles went over the Army’s but not before a artillery shell landed in the middle of a AAV, killing two marines instantly and wounding another three or four. At first, it was thought to be Iraqi shells, but it out to be friendly fire. Had the shell landed six feet closer to me, close to 70 marines waiting to cross the bridge would have been hit. Whatever Iraqi resistance had not been eliminated had pulled back.
On the morning of April 9, the day started early to the sounds of looters smashing cinder blocks through the windows of new Iraqi Army pick-up trucks at a military compound where we had spent the night. Frantically trying to hot wire the ignitions of 10-15 trucks, local Iraqis were keen to extract their pound of revenge from a compound long-forbidden to them. Very few knew what they were doing. They hauled off computers, furniture, air conditioners and clothing. The marines had no orders to stop them and laughed as they beheld the scene.
By late morning orders came down through the tank commander for an operation to flush out any Saddam Fedeyeen sighted on Highway 8 leading to central Baghdad. After two to three hours of slowly picking our way a deserted industrial area, we got orders from Regiment headquarters to head into Baghdad and take over the university. A second company was to surround and take the Interior Ministry. Lt. Col. McCoy and our Bravo Company were to head to the Palestine Hotel.
I thought I was imagining what just came over the radio. Maybe McCoy wanted to run into the journalist’s hotel to throw back a few beers before heading off to another target? No one could make any sense of the new directives, least of all me, as I doubted any of the marines knew what the Palestine Hotel was all about.
Our Humvee, 4 AAV’s and 8 tanks arrived outside the Palestine Hotel at around 3:30 pm. The hotel’s outer rim was ringed with television cameras and makeshift studio tents. It quickly became apparent the marines were not only liberating this part of Baghdad for the local Iraqis, but for the benefit journalists, too. Lt. Col. McCoy found himself surrounded by writers and TV cameras. Two hours later, at about 6:00 pm, the Saddam statue was down and broken apart. By 7:00 pm, the streets were empty and dark. All the hesitant revelers had scurried back into their apartments for along night of intermittent gunfire and silence. The liberation had barely taken hold.