SOUTH OF AL KUT, Iraq—As the Marines rolled through the night toward an expected battle with Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard on Wednesday, an unlucky bus rushed headlong toward them on Highway 7.
The Marines opened fire from machine guns mounted on their Humvees, badly damaging the bus and killing 20 of the 22 Iraqis inside. The Iraqis wore makeshift uniforms and had two pistols between them.
Apprehensive about possible suicide attacks and guerrillas in civilian clothes, the 4th Amphibious Assault Battalion of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force has done a lot of firing on the road to al Kut, but met little organized resistance.
By Thursday morning, the 4th was 30 miles south of al Kut, where a division of the elite Republican Guard is reportedly waiting. In a steady rain, the Marines stopped along the highway to refuel and regroup before pushing on.
On Wednesday morning, about 100 miles to the west, uniformed Iraqis using old Soviet-era tanks had launched a probing attack on U.S. forces north of An Najaf. The Army's 3rd Infantry Division responded with artillery and tanks. In the end, 40 Iraqis were killed and 14 Iraqi vehicles, including Soviet-made T-55 and T-62 tanks, were destroyed.
The fighting, which caused no American casualties, was one of the largest skirmishes on a day when allied forces remained largely dug in, their supply lines still drawn thin and harassed by enemy sniping and attacks.
"I'm worried we're running out of supplies," said Col. John P. Gardner, the commander of the Army's 7th Combat Support Group as it set up camp south of An Najaf and waited for supplies to catch up across a route choked by sand and threatened by sporadic guerrilla attack. "We need the rest of our people to get here, but it's too dangerous."
After taking longer than expected to reach An Najaf, the support group Wednesday faced shortages of food and water. Support crews scheduled to follow close behind were held back by limited visibility and fighting along the supply route, where Iraqis waited to pounce on any convoy driver unfortunate enough to get into a wreck.
The support group found its refuge by moving two families of nomads off their land. They gave the nomads receipts for later reimbursement, but could not tell them how or where to cash them.
Befuddled, the families left behind their dogs, chickens, tents, bowls and pots. All day and night, the dogs howled, the puppies whimpered and the chickens squawked until they found partially eaten MREs discarded by the soldiers.
In central Iraq, civilian casualties were still a concern as Marines moving up Highway 7 went from gunfight to gunfight as they moved toward al Kut, where they believe they will face elements of the Iraqi Republican Guard.
At Ash Shatra, at least two civilians were killed and several injured when a missile of unknown origin hit a vehicle on Tuesday. Local farmer Hassan Abed said he was traveling in a large group of 35 to 40 people as well as goats and sheep when their vehicle was hit. Marines treated the injured, which included an elderly woman, a woman who appeared to be her daughter and a baby
Marines found Iraqi forces waiting in ambush there, firing across fields in what became a two- to three-hour firefight. Cobra attack helicopters firing Hellfire missiles joined M1 tanks and an artillery barrage in a counterattack Wednesday.
Other Marine elements south of Al Kut also had to deal with harassing fire and attempted suicide attacks. In one incident also on Highway 7 south of al Kut, two vehicles carrying propane tanks rushed the Marines in what Marines suspected might be a suicide attack.
Marines stopped the two trucks, one an 18-wheeler and one a flatbed. The drivers emerged firing pistols and were killed.
The apparent attack, coupled with repeated reports of Iraqis pretending to surrender only to open fire, had Marines on edge and wary of even those dressed in civilian garb.
Advised Capt. Joseph Bevan: "If someone surrenders to you, keep that muzzle pointed right in their face."
Farther south, Iraqis continued to harass U.S. and British forces before retreating to the relative safety of civilian neighborhoods.
American forces pushing west of the Euphrates bypassed the paved-road ease of Highway 28 because it passes too close to cities. Instead, they used a clogged and bumpy dirt road running parallel.
Any Iraqi civilian was suspect. Two convoys, one containing 35 fuel trucks heading south to refill, were delayed while military police targeted two men ambling through the desert near the road.
"You want them to open up, check inside their jackets," Maj. Gillian Boice of the 709th Military Police Battalion called out over her radio. "If they're suicide bombers we don't want to get too lured into anything."
More American forces also headed into Iraq from Kuwait. The 2nd Brigade of the Army's 101st Airborne Division left Camp New York in 25 vehicles loaded with troops wearing bio-chemical suits.
Two platoons of armored Humvees rolled with the convoy, armed with anti-tank missiles and 40 mm grenade launchers. There were also medics, and truck after truck filled with water, gasoline, food and spare parts to replenish troops already in the north.
Said Capt. Kenneth Hutchison: "Unless there's a mass surrender in the next 48 hours, these guys are definitely going to be a part of the Baghdad plan, whatever it is."
(Peterson of The (Biloxi, Miss.) Sun-Herald, is with the Marine Corps' 4th Amphibious Assault Battalion near al Kut; Brown is with the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division. Thomma reported from Washington. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents: Meg Laughlin with the 7th Combat Support Group of the Army's V Corps, near An Najaf; Scott Canon of The Kansas City Star, with V Corps near An Nasiriyah; and S. Thorne Harper of The Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer, with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division, near An Najaf contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.