NEAR AN NAJAF, IRAQ—Army units trying to take control of An Najaf, 80 miles south of Baghdad, have killed hundreds of Iraqi men in three days of fighting, including two during a terrible sandstorm.
No U.S. soldier died in the combat, though four tanks were lost, two apparently to laser-guided, Russian-made, anti-tank missiles. The other two ran off bridges into canals during sandstorms.
Soldiers who took part in the battle described what they say in the past few days in words more sorrowful than boastful.
"The Iraqis took it bad. It was suicide," said Pfc. Ionathan Simatos of Los Angeles, who drives a Bradley.
The soldiers described the Iraqi fighters as men in civilian clothes packed in pickup trucks, cargo trucks, buses with velvet curtains and taxis. They fired at the U.S. soldiers with AK-47s, grenade launchers, anti-tank rockets and mortars as well as 30-year-old, Russian-built tanks.
"Their technology is sad, so outdated," said Sgt. Tony Menendez of Miami, an Abrams tank gunner. "I saw their faces and I felt so bad for them."
With the sandstorms gone Thursday, elements of the 3rd Infantry Division began sweeping the town's outskirts in an effort to stop hit-and-run attacks by Iraqi loyalist forces that have disrupted the main supply route for U.S. forces advancing to Baghdad.
The rules of engagement were clear: don't shoot anyone who isn't armed; if they are armed shoot them.
"We're looking for black flags, black uniforms and people with weapons," one commander told his troops.
More fighting is expected Friday. Troops here reported that a column of 50 Iraqi tanks left An Najaf and were within 20 miles of an American supply post to the west of the town. American planes were showering the tanks with bombs, and the explosions could be heard by soldiers at the supply post who were getting their first hot meals and showers after three days of fighting.
Since Monday, 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, known simply as the 3-7, has been met again and again with resistance from Iraqis in pickup trucks and curtain-lined buses. Thursday, units of the 3-7 battled Iraqi militia in a six-hour battle marked by sporadic mortar and small-arms fire. One soldier was wounded by mortar fire; another was injured when his Bradley Fighting Vehicle crashed into a small building.
But there were few reports of U.S. casualties in combat actions throughout Iraq as poorly armed Iraqis tangle with U.S. troops.
One hundred miles away along Highway 7 busloads of civilian-garbed, poorly armed, and sometimes shoeless Iraqis have driven directly at American convoys. The outcome is always the same: U.S. forces pour rounds from Humvee-mounted .50-caliber machine guns into the buses. Most onboard die. The rest are taken prisoner.
U.S. troops are wary of civilians.
Southeast of Najaf, soldiers guarding an ammunition and fuel depot were wary of Iraqi civilians as well. Seemingly civilian vehicles—white vans—have actually been armed with rocket-propelled grenades. Wednesday, one attacked, wounding an American. Thursday, one drove up with a bloodied Iraqi at the wheel, throwing the soldiers into frenzy. The man said he had escaped from Saddam's forces, but said he had seen similar vans that could be used in an attack. The soldiers immediately sprang into action, heading out to find the trucks. It was a false alarm, as the truck they found was driven by an actual civilian.
"The lesson is, never drop your guard," said Army Spec. Timmy Melia. "All it takes is one straggler. The straggler will get you killed."
Compounding the fear was the sizable number of Iraqis passing along the road near the depot caught with cell phones and hand-held global positioning locaters. Rolls of American and Iraqi money have also been found on some them. Information on the whereabouts of prime U.S. targets has become a lucrative business in Iraq during the past week.
Army intelligence officers say the Iraqis in civilian clothes and vehicles are not part of a desperate grass-roots effort but are part of an Iraqi military plan to catch U.S. ground troops off guard because they are being cautious not to harm civilians.
"The Iraqi military knows if they look like civilians they can fire first, and they do," said Capt. John Wilson of Army intelligence.
The Iraqis in civilian clothes are generally not thought to be part of the regular army. They are fedayeen, irregular militiamen loyal to Saddam Hussein and his Ba'ath Party. They have used similar tactics throughout Iraq in recent days.
They have not been militarily successful. Hundreds of Iraqis have been killed, wounded, and taken prisoner, while only a few Americans have.
But the tactic has sown some confusion among American soldiers about who to trust—and made it difficult to win the hearts and minds of Iraqi civilians.
At one point Thursday in the sweep outside Najaf, soldiers rounded up 48 civilian villagers, forcing the men to lie face-down in the sand and, in a violation of Islamic custom, patting down the women. No weapons were found on those civilians.
"This is about the oddest situation I've ever been through in my life," said Private 1st Class Matthew Pedone, 19, of Springdale, Ark., as he cradled a light machine gun across one knee. "Just look at the primitive living conditions. Some of them don't have shoes."
When asked if he believed the villagers were Iraqi militia who had fired mortars, Pedone said he was unsure.
"I don't know," he said. "Intel said it was a training camp or something. I'm just doing what I'm told to do. If the leadership tells me to check them for weapons, I do it."
Lt. Col. Jack Kammerer, 40, task force commander, told troops Thursday night that they can expect further harassing attacks in coming days.
"We've still got a long way to go," he said.
It won't get any easier. In fighting the militia, troops had been briefed to keep an eye out for Iraqis dressed in black uniforms and for buildings flying black flags, both alleged trademarks of Saddam's loyalist "Fedayeen" militia. But the guidance proved confusing for a number of soldiers since Shiites traditionally wear black clothing and adorn their houses with black prayer flags. So officers ordered restraint.
"Remember, a lot of people around here wear black clothes," said Apache Company commander Capt. John Whyte, 31, of Billerica, Mass., speaking to Bradley crews and troops over company radio.
"What we're looking for are weapons, military equipment and vehicles. You know, army stuff."
One villager who was questioned said the mortars and gunshots were fired by members of Saddam's ruling Ba'ath party.
"They will never surrender," he said, speaking through Lt. Gregory Holmes, 32, of Cobleskill, N.Y., an Arab interpreter.
"He says they're all for us around her," Holmes said, after talking to the man for a while longer. "He says everybody here loves us."
Maj. Frank McClary, Task Force 3-7 Infantry's operations officer, let the man go, then turned to Holmes, telling him to give the group small handouts of food and water. "Tell them we're here to help them," he said. "Not harm them. I don't want to leave here with them thinking that we're here to harass them."
Afterwards, McClary admitted that the U.S. soldiers probably treated the civilians too roughly.
"That's not the way you do business," he said. "They're just eager to do something."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-BATTLE