SOUTH OF SAMAWA, Iraq—Early Sunday morning, racing along Highway 28 west of the Euphrates River, elements of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division kept their headlights burning and made little effort to conceal their whereabouts—a sign of just how audacious their rush toward Baghdad has become.
Hundreds of tanks, trucks, and Bradley fighting vehicles sped north near this city, firing artillery barrages at suspected enemy emplacements and stopping to take on fuel from support vehicles.
Soldiers in the convoy waved at a Bedouin family that was drawing water near the highway. The family waved back.
A confrontation was only hours away with some of Saddam Hussein's best troops, the soldiers believed.
Soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division took control of a major airfield outside Nassiriyah and had seized a key bridge across the Euphrates near that city. But they made no effort to enter the city, apparently not wanting to get bogged down in urban combat.
While officials in Washington said some U.S. forces had crossed the Euphrates, the 3rd Infantry Division remained west of the river as they sped up Highway 28.
A two-pronged assault on Baghdad from the south had always been thought likely, with Army units staying west of the river until Karbala, and Marine units heading north between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers through the city of Al Kut.
Elements of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, were reported near Nassiriyah on Saturday after a difficult 30-hour push through the desert. Their next move was not known.
Information on Army casualties was incomplete, but sporadic radio reports indicated that at least four soldiers had been wounded in confrontations as the column headed north Saturday. Two reportedly were wounded when Iraqis, dressed in civilian clothes, fired a rocket-propelled grenade at their Humvee.
Another two were wounded when they came under small-arms fire near Samawa. U.S. troops responded early Sunday by firing as many as two dozen artillery rounds at what was believed to be an enemy position near Samawa.
Explosions also could be seen further north as airstrikes or artillery hit unknown targets ahead of the army's advance.
Major Republican Guard units are thought to be at Karbala, 60 miles southwest of Baghdad and about 100 miles from Samawa.
The 3rd Infantry Division's 1st, 2nd and 3rd brigades have been leapfrogging one another in their race to the Iraqi capital. The 1st Brigade was the first into the country Thursday night, then it waited about 6 miles inside Iraq for the 2nd and 3rd brigades to cross. Then it pushed to pass those brigades and was in the lead again Sunday morning as they neared Samawa. Its next objective was said to be several hours away.
It was the 3rd Brigade in the wee hours of Saturday that captured the Tallil airfield, a major objective. At about 2 a.m., artillery began pounding the airfield, lighting up the horizon with flashes and thunderous booms. Fires could be seen glowing in the night sky.
As the brigade's 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment blocked any movement from nearby Nassiriyah, the 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment—the "Audie Murphy Battalion"—led an assault on the airfield defended by troops from Iraq's 11th Division.
Lt. Col. Geoff Ward, the brigade's assistant commander, said the Iraqis fought back with troops, tanks and artillery, and that one soldier from the 1-30 was airlifted off the battlefield after being shot in the chest. The soldier's name and condition were unavailable Saturday afternoon.
At least 25 Iraqis were killed and five buildings destroyed in the battle for the airfield, which is near Iraq's 11th Division headquarters. The installation had been a chemical weapons depot before the first Persian Gulf War, but was no longer in use by Iraqi airplanes because it was in the no-fly zone established after that war.
U.N. inspectors had not investigated it before the U.S. invasion, American Army officers said.
About 200 Iraqi soldiers were taken prisoner. The number of Iraqis wounded wasn't unavailable. However, Ward said U.S. medics were treating wounded Iraqis.
An American soldier took one Iraqi soldier with artillery shrapnel wounds in his torso to a mobile medical unit near brigade headquarters.
Ward said troops also encountered an undisclosed number of civilians on the battlefield. U.S. troops continued to receive small-arms fire throughout the day outside Nassiriyah, not far from the ancient ruins of Ur, the birthplace of the biblical Abraham, patriarch of Jews and Muslims.
Saturday had been a difficult day for other units of the 3rd Infantry Division, though not because of enemy fire. The plan had called for the 1st Brigade to move 60 miles past Nassiriyah on Saturday, past the 3rd Brigade, and wait while the 2nd Brigade completed its combat assignment before moving back into the lead for Sunday's rush northward.
But the planned five-hour drive for Task Force 3-7 Infantry, the 1st Brigade Combat Team's lead element, took 15 hours, and much of the brigade was still bogged down miles behind. Some vehicles broke down and others got stuck in the sand. Apache Company, 1-30th Infantry, the lead unit, could travel only about 6 mph, and had to stop every 45 minutes for stragglers to catch up.
An entire Patriot missile battery—seven launchers and a command vehicle—got bogged down in the sand.
The delay lent a sense of urgency to the campaign as lead units moved out Saturday morning without the rest of the unit.
"Where is the rest of the brigade?" one soldier asked.
"We need to get moving," another remarked. "This is really going to screw things up."
But by Sunday morning, the 1st Brigade was back in the lead and racing toward Samawa, whose lights could be seen shimmering in the distance.
Out of the sand, the convoy traveled more quickly, stretching from horizon to horizon in the early morning darkness, its white lights clearly visible. Soldiers had donned the boots of their protective chemical-weapons suits as a precaution. Tracked artillery vehicles sped past vehicles that had stopped to refuel. Flashes of artillery rounds or airstrikes could be seen in the distance, softening up, perhaps, the objectives that would be engaged in a few hours.
(Knight Ridder correspondents Andrea Gerlin and Jeff Wilkinson contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-BATTLE