NASIRIYAH, Iraq—U.S. Marines, moving through this still-contested city, opened fire at anything that moved Tuesday, leaving dozens of dead in their wake, at least some of them civilians.
Helicopter gunships circled overhead, unleashing Hellfire missiles into the squat mud-brick homes and firing their machine guns, raining spent cartridge cases into neighborhoods. Occasionally a tank blasted a hole in a house. Several bodies fell in alleys.
It was impossible to know which were civilian and which had belonged to members of Iraqi loyalist militias. The militias have ambushed Marine convoys here for days as the Marines tried to cross the Euphrates River on a rapid march north to Al Kut, where they are expected to engage elements of Iraq's Republican Guard.
Signs of battle were everywhere. Burnt-out shells of Russian-made tanks lay along the roadside. Other tanks facing the bridge clearly had been taken out by U.S. aircraft.
Official versions of the battles at the bridge were unavailable. U.S. casualties appeared light, but it was likely that many civilians had been killed. U.S. troops searching houses found one woman in her home with her husband, who was wounded, and her two sons, who were dead. All had been hit by stray bullets.
The shooting came as U.S. forces, targeted in recent days by Iraqis dressed in civilian clothes, had become increasingly aggressive in dealing with resistance. Marines were told a tracked amphibious vehicle had been ambushed by a group waving a white flag, and the plan for moving the 3rd Platoon of the 4th Amphibious Assault Battalion of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force was aggressive, calling for so-called "suppressive fire" throughout the area to keep insurgents at bay.
It was early in the morning, and each of the platoon's 12 27-ton Amtracs carried 18 Marine infantrymen.
The vehicles formed a herringbone pattern along the street and opened fire as they advanced.
"I started feeling comfortable, like I knew what I was doing," said Cpl. David Barringer, 25, a reservist who is a firefighter from Gulfport, Miss., in civilian life. "I never really felt scared," he said, saying he had shot one militiaman and maybe three in the passage. "Everything we were taught, it all comes back to you."
A few hundred yards past the bridge, the Marines came upon the grisly scene of an ambush. Infantrymen reported that a group of 40 Iraqi soldiers on buses apparently had attacked an artillery unit. Approximately 20 Iraqis were killed when the Americans returned fire and the rest were captured. The buses were burned-out hulks.
"I saw a lot of bloodshed," said Sgt. Ken Woechan, 23, a reservist and assistant Wal-Mart manager from Ocean Springs. Miss.
Woechan said at Nasiriyah he saw what he believed were militiamen hiding behind women and children. "A family would run across and there would be a guy behind them," he said.
The crossing of the Marines' 4th Amphibious Assault Battalion was one of the few detailed accounts that emerged from Tuesday's fighting. Reports of combat elsewhere on Tuesday were sketchy, in part because a fierce sandstorm disrupted communications between units. The Marine forward headquarters at the Tillil airfield near this city was forced to transfer command back to Kuwait because it lost communications and power.
Radio traffic indicated that a company of the 1st Marines was caught in a firefight near here and summoned "emergency supplies," but there was no further information available.
The Army's 141st Mechanized Infantry killed two men and captured 11 others trying to pierce security near the airfield, and Army officers also reported an unsuccessful ambush of U.S. troops within a mile of the airfield. Army officers said they had repeated run-ins with Iraqis within two miles of the command post, seizing three trucks, one fuel truck, one taxi and one bus, all loaded with weapons and ammunition.
Marines said they seized 500 young men thought to be members of a pro-Saddam militia aboard several buses at a checkpoint near Nasiriyah. A Marine raid on a hospital in Nasiriyah reportedly turned up several weapons, chemical protection suits and some U.S. military uniforms. It was not immediately clear if the uniforms were taken off some of the American POWs captured there on Sunday, or were part of Saddam's alleged plans to infiltrate his troops behind American lines using U.S. uniforms.
The Marines also claimed to have captured the headquarters of the 23rd Brigade of the Iraqi army's 11th division northeast of Nasiriyah, but there were no details on the fighting.
Concerns about security near Nasiriyah remained high. At the airfield, even public affairs officers assigned to assist reporters who have been "embedded" with the units at the airfield were issued weapons and given guard duty along a sand berm that is still being built to protect the base.
Reporters traveling with troops all along the 155-mile supply route that stretches from Nasiriyah to north of An Najaf reported tension. At one forward position, soldiers asked a reporter to carry a pistol to help protect the perimeter.
North of an Najaf, the 3rd Infantry Division's Charlie Company 3-7 Infantry killed three Iraqi soldiers who fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a Humvee loaded with U.S. soldiers. They also cleared what was described as an Iraqi command and control facility, blowing it up and destroying some equipment.
Southeast of an Najaf, elements of the 3rd Infantry Division's 7th Cavalry were attacked by unknown assailants who shot at the U.S. vehicles. There were no U.S. casualties and Iraqi casualties were unknown.
There were also reports of logistical difficulties throughout the American lines. One lead Army element north of Iraq had not received fuel in two days.
And Marines of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, crossing the Euphrates and heading north through hostile territory, were plagued with breakdowns of their amphibious vehicles. Two of the unit's vehicles were out of service and being towed up the roadway to the coming battle.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Matt Schofield, Meg Laughlin and Drew Brown contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.