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Stalled in the desert: sand, silt and a false alarm

NEAR NASSIRIYAH, IRAQ—After three wearying days and two short nights driving through the desert and encountering little except nomadic Bedouin families, an advance Army supply group stopped in the desert Sunday night because of intense fighting between coalition and Iraqi forces nearby.

It's our first encounter with fighting since we left Kuwait on Friday.

We're stuck here now. This area is not secure. We can see the red flashes in the distance. We have to be very quiet because we don't want anyone to know we're here. We're not using any lights. We can see the bombs blowing up seven or eight miles away.

I'm traveling with100 soldiers who are part of a supply group of the Army's V Corps. We're heading for the town of al Najaf, where the food, fuel, water, ammunition and other supplies we're carrying will be consumed by combat units when they arrive or pass through on the way to Baghdad. We're part of a larger convoy of 1,000 troops who have orders to go to other places.

It's rough out here. We drove for six hours Sunday before reaching this point.

On Friday and Saturday, we covered 150 miles in deep sand with little visibility. The dust kicked up by our vehicles sometimes prevents drivers from seeing much more than 20 feet in front of themselves.

From time to time on Saturday, the convoy passed families of nomads whose children yelled, "MREs! MREs!" The soldiers obliged by tossing MREs, the vacuum-sealed meals-ready-to-eat, out the windows of their trucks and Humvees to the children.

We drove through the night Saturday and early Sunday, stopping at 4:45 a.m. about 60 miles into Iraq. But we had only an hour's sleep before being awakened by the noise of honking horns, a signal for a gas attack. It turned out to be a false alarm. A soldier had accidentally hit his horn, starting a chain reaction.

Once up, soldiers wiped silt and grime off their faces with disposable wipe cloths. A trench became a toilet. Everyone walked slowly and said little. We waited until mid-afternoon to begin driving again. The temperature climbed.

"It's extremely harsh out here," Maj. Morris Hatcher of Jacksonville, Fla., said Sunday morning.

Despite the heat, the soldiers wear chemical protection suits and tightly cinched, 35-pound Kevlar vests. They strap two quarts of water to their belts and sling M-16 rifles over their shoulders. All told, they carry 55 pounds of gear at all times.

1st Lt. Maritza Garriga of Tampa, Fla., carries something more: photos of her children around her neck. A smiling 6-year-old girl and her 4-month-old boy. She was still nursing when she left for Iraq.

"They give me the will to keep going," she said.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.