ASSEMBLY AREA SPARTAN, southern Iraq—The 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment's own vehicles could prove to be a tougher opponent than the Iraqi army.
At least one-fifth of the battalion's large fleet of amphibious assault vehicles broke down because they overheated or ran out of fuel during the 100-mile trip from its dispersion area in northern Kuwait through rural terrain in southwestern Iraq.
The journey took nearly 30 hours, and ended early Saturday. Radio communication breakdowns during the latter stages hampered coordination among the battalion's five companies.
Fortunately, these Marines have yet to encounter the Iraqi army.
Still, the possibility of their "amtrac" vehicles, each crammed with as many as 20 men, breaking down should they meet hostile enemy forces further along the front worries Lt. Col. John Mayer, the battalion's commanding officer.
"I'm very concerned now," Mayer said Saturday as his men recovered from an expedition that bordered on harrowing at times. "So far, we've been in rural areas. As we go north in more populated areas, you can't just leave an amtrac with the people in it. You're going to get stragglers, and there are groups that do not like us."
Some of the vehicles were towed behind others to this staging area along Main Supply Route Dallas, the corridor through which essential supplies such as fuel, food, water and ammunition are being transported to units at the front. Other vehicles were abandoned along the route and recovered Saturday. As the Marines unfurled their bed rolls on the desert floor, one officer reminded them that an Iraqi army unit had been reported less than 20 miles away.
Drivers, crew members and mechanics from the 4th Amphibious Assault Vehicle reserve unit, who maintain and drive the vehicles, spent Saturday repairing them while the battalion awaited refueling. The battalion doesn't have its own fleet and relies on the reserve unit to provide the vehicles, many of which are 25 years old and were upgraded two years ago. They were pulled out of storage and arrived last weekend, two days before the battalion got its orders to leave for the front.
"The real problem is that we have just taken them off the ship," Mayer said. "We didn't have the time to do the maintenance."
In addition to its mechanical and fuel problems, the battalion battled chaos as radio communications in some of its vehicles crashed Friday. After Bravo Company lost radio links in the company commander's Humvee, its task of marking out the boundaries of a planned prisoner-of-war site was reassigned to Alpha Company, which began the work just as several suspicious Iraqi men were observed in the vicinity.
Marines in every vehicle in the battalion were ordered to load their weapons and prepare to fire, but Cobra helicopters flew overhead and determined there was no threat of ambush, so the vehicles continued.
The ensuing chaos caused by lost vehicles, downed communications and 45 hours without sleep meant flaring tempers and some blue language inside the vehicles.
"It caused a little friction in our company, because we would have had to leave people behind" if a threat had arisen, said Capt. Chris Griffin, Alpha Company's commanding officer. "Had there been bad guys firing at us, that combined with the vehicle friction would have caused the battalion problems."
After a few hours of rest, the Marines got their morale and sense of humor back Saturday. Still, they shared Mayer's anxiety about proceeding north in clapped-out jalopies.
"It's pretty sad to have that many vehicles break down before you've even gotten to the fight," said one Marine, whose vehicle was unaffected.
If they hadn't encountered so many problems, the battalion might have proceeded the 20 or so miles to Nassiriyah, where the Army's V Corps secured two crucial bridges over the Euphrates River on Friday and Saturday. Fighting between the Iraqi army's 11th Division, an infantry unit based in Nassiriyah, and American units was reported there throughout the day before coalition forces declared they had won control of the town.
Explosions from the direction of Nassiriyah could be heard in this assembly area as early as 10 a.m. Saturday and throughout the day. During the afternoon, three Cobra helicopters were seen attacking an unknown target in the distance with Hellfire missiles.
Earlier in the day, two Marines from the Combat Services Support Group who were scouting for water sources about 4 miles from Assembly Area Spartan exchanged fire with forces believed to be from the Iraqis' 11th Division. Mayer also said a group of Iraqi soldiers bearing a white flag approached another Marine unit in the vicinity.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.