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With The Troops: Dispatches From The Front

8 minute read
Simon Robinson and Michael Ware

BASRA SIMON ROBINSON

“Multiple Iraqis in the quarry with weapons,” said the voice over the radio, “and they’re not surrendering.” It’s Friday afternoon at 4 p.m., Day One of “shock and awe.” For hours I have traveled north across the desert with the Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. Packed tightly into an amphibious assault vehicle–Marines call it an Amtrak–we head toward our destination, just outside the strategic city of Basra in southern Iraq. The mission will be to cut off troops of the Iraqi army’s 51st Division. But first we found ourselves in an old stone quarry miles from Basra that had become a refuge for Iraqi soldiers. Not long after we arrived, two appeared in the open and headed on foot toward one of the Amtraks.

At first the Marines thought the pair was about to surrender–until they opened fire, that is. Instantly a Marine sniper climbed to the top of our Amtrak and lined up a shot, but the two men darted behind the cover of a sandy berm. Moments later, Sergeant Major David Howell, using an Amtrak for cover, sneaked up behind the soldiers as they came out to surrender and forced them to the ground.

What these young Marines–many of them barely out of their teens–are discovering is that real-life enemy terrain is not quite like the models on which they trained. A miniature Iraq, built in the sand at their camp in Kuwait, had towns that were small patches of red with Iraqi soldiers represented by black-and-white targets. Now the towns are real and populated by flesh-and-blood Iraqi soldiers ready to kill.

On Tuesday morning, whoops of delight went up around the camp as the Marines heard President Bush give Saddam Hussein 48 hours to capitulate. With that, the men began making final preparations. Most of them had already “sanitized” their packs, leaving behind photos and letters from home–anything that could be used against them if they were to be taken prisoner. Some, though, hid pictures of wives and girlfriends.

After Bush’s speech, as they were about to move out, their battalion commander, Lieut. Colonel Bryan McCoy, addressed them: “Demonstrate to the world that there is no better friend and no worse enemy than a U.S. Marine.” He added, “We’ve got a very grim job ahead of us, gentlemen. If the Iraqis try to fight, we’ll slaughter them. This is not going to be a fair fight.”

McCoy acknowledged later that the moment was probably overwhelming for some of his young Marines. “Up to now,” he said, “the biggest knock they’ve ever taken is being turned down for the prom. I don’t think they understand yet the combat capabilities they possess. But they will once they start attacking.”

We did not move into Iraq until Friday morning, and Thursday was marked by frequent gas-attack alarms, always false but each of them requiring us to rush into our chemical suits. All through Thursday night, bedded down in sleeping bags on the desert floor, we could hear the huge rumble of U.S. artillery pounding Safwan Hill, just over the border. Sometime around 1 a.m., we were awakened and began to pull out.

A few hours later we were on the road, packed into the Amtrak, 16 in the back, with a crew of three in front to drive and act as shotgun. We reached the Iraq-Kuwait border very quickly, though most of us could not see much. One of the Marines shouted up to Lance Corporal Tyrell Joyner, 19, who was posted up top, “How does Iraq look?” Joyner shouted back, “Like Nevada! There’s sagebrush and stuff!”

Making swift progress, we passed about a dozen Iraqi POWs sitting on the ground cross-legged, with their hands behind their heads. Elsewhere we passed the adobe houses of villagers who were out working in their well-watered gardens. As our convoys drove past, many of the villagers stopped to wave. The young Marines were moved. It was their first encounter with Iraqi civilians, and they had not been sure what to expect.

On Saturday we were headed for Basra International Airport, which the Marines were to secure, when we were almost hit by what appeared to be a tank round. Fortunately, we had learned that the Iraqis are not very good at redirecting fire once they have nearly hit a target. As a further precaution, two Marines prepared to fire a shoulder-launched multipurpose assault weapon, a rocket that can take out a tank. As they stepped out, another enemy round went off. Missed again.

By the time we got to the airport, having been delayed by a broken fuel pump, Basra International was deserted. The battle for the airport–McCoy would later describe it as “brutal”–was over. Before they fled, the Iraqis had set fire to the airport administration building and had strewn the runway with debris to prevent U.S. planes from using it. All that remained was a statue of a waving Saddam standing forlornly amid the wreckage.

KURDISTAN MICHAEL WARE

At about 2:45 p.m. Saturday in the Kurdish city of Gerdigo, in northern Iraq, I heard the thump of a mortar firing. It was coming from the battle line held by Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish fundamentalist Islamic group that’s allied with al-Qaeda, with some support from Saddam Hussein. The round landed in front of a forward emplacement held by the Kurdish 61st Uprising Battalion, part of the anti-Saddam Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Moments later, a second round landed even closer. The soldiers scurried into their foxholes, me along with them, before they popped back up to return fire with a DShK heavy machine gun. Then, from behind us, came a whomp of an explosion that I knew wasn’t a mortar. Across a grassy field, flame and smoke belched up from what had been a taxicab. With a sickening realization we knew that a suicide bomber had struck. What I didn’t know until I got to the scene was that one of the victims was a colleague, Paul Moran of the Australian Broadcasting Corp. He was the first journalist killed in Gulf War II. The most likely suspect: Ansar.

The mortar attack had been a diversion. The taxi had detonated near a Kurdish checkpoint where Moran had been filming some soldiers. The blast loosed a fireball, charred the asphalt and left the taxi a smoking hulk. A roadside stall was set alight. Paul died instantly. Two Kurdish soldiers were also killed and five more seriously wounded.

In the Kurdish-controlled part of Iraq, war can be a two-, three-or even four-way fight. Two main Kurdish groups, the PUK and the Kurdish Democratic Party, have co-existed uneasily, even though both despise Saddam. After Sept. 11, several Taliban-like groups also emerged. They mostly blended into Ansar, which, with help from Baghdad, has used brutal tactics to try to impose Islamic fundamentalism on the secular Kurds. There are no noncombatants here. One morning, while in a position being bombarded by mortars for six hours, one of the local fighters known as peshmerga told me, “These bombs don’t recognize your identity.” Territory shifts frequently. The day before the blast, the checkpoints were manned by a local fundamentalist militia, known as Komal, which is allied to Ansar and protects its northern flank.

This wasn’t the terrorists’ first suicide bombing, but never before had they successfully targeted a journalist. Two soldiers and a civilian were ripped apart on Feb. 26 in the same region, outside the town of Halabja, when a taxi passenger strapped with explosives detonated himself at a checkpoint. Afterward, Kurdish intelligence sources warned us that more bombers were aiming for journos and our hotel in Sulaimaniyah. American agencies also warned media organizations that intelligence traffic had picked up a threat against the press pack in northern Iraq. The Kurdish military increased protection for us, beefing up troops around our hotel, introducing stricter registration procedures and logging our travels more closely.

On the day Paul died, Ansar and its allies were supposed to be on the defensive. The U.S., which believes the group has ties to al-Qaeda, had set out to crush its stronghold in the mountains near Iran. For more than two hours that morning, Ansar had been hit by what a Kurdish combat commander described as “a cocktail of Tomahawk and cruise missiles.” As many as 40 missiles rained down over the snowy Shinerwe Mountain from U.S. warships in the Red Sea, killing dozens and destroying an ammunition dump and a string of the terrorists’ forward bunkers.

The missiles silenced the Ansar mortar batteries. One impudent mortar that opened up a few hours later was taken out by a U.S. warplane. The peshmerga cheered the missiles and spent the day sunning themselves on the grass. Translated literally, their name means “those who face death.” Tragically, I learned this applies to journalists too.

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