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Marines move north, meet with disturbing civilian casualties

AS SHATRA, Iraq—The northward march of Marines through Mesopotamia has been three days of constant fighting, leaving a trail of havoc and enemy casualties.

A 4,000-man U.S. Marine regiment won a decisive battle Tuesday for control of this Baath Party stronghold without loss of American lives. After daylong fighting, the central Iraqi town was desolate and littered with charred vehicles and the bodies of Iraqi soldiers and civilians.

But on Thursday key supply routes leading here from the south still weren't entirely secure, and the Marines' progress was slow.

The 1st Battalion 4th Marines, based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., arrived outside the town Tuesday morning and immediately began taking fire from a nearby field. A three-hour firefight ensued amid reports that the foes were part of a Republican Guard division that had moved south from Al Cut, the next major town before Baghdad.

The Marines responded with rifle and mortar fire. Just before sunset, M1 Abrams tanks rolled in to reinforce the infantrymen. Soon after dark, an electrical storm lit up the sky as Americans pelted the enemy with artillery from the 1st Battalion 11th Marines and .25 mm guns from the 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance unit.

In the morning, the Iraqis fired small arms and two rocket-propelled grenades toward oil trucks near the Marines' command center. The Marines responded with Howitzer fire, then rolled into As Shatra to mop up remaining enemy elements. A poster of Saddam Hussein and enemy fire greeted them, but they suffered no major injuries among the troops.

Iraqis suffered much more. The Marines found several families whose vehicles had been caught in the crossfire. At least two people in civilian clothing were dead at the scene; 12 apparent civilians were brought to the command center for aid and medical treatment.

Among the wounded were an elderly woman, a baby and a woman who died at the treatment site. A woman who appeared to be her mother stood over her body moaning and chanting prayers. The victims were to be airlifted to a military hospital for further treatment, but weather conditions prohibited evacuation. Instead, they were transferred to a combat support center.

Hassan Abed, a farmer from a nearby village, said most people had left before the Marines arrived.

When the Marines left, charred vehicles sat at the roadside, including a bus that held skeletal remains. The carnage included dead women and children and several men in the black pajama-style outfits of Iraqi paramilitary. The U.S. military had bound the wrists of some surviving men who were considered potential combatants.

The Marines were surprised by the amount of resistance they have encountered. Tom Parks, 1st Battalion 4th Marines' gunner who served in the Gulf War, said this war presented a greater challenge.

I thought it would be quicker," said Parks, from Philadelphia.

"It's like in Vietnam," he added: "You can't understand their methods because they're so devoted to their cause."

The resistance may be creating supply and logistical problems for the Marines.

Command center radio messages to the convoy Wednesday warned the Marines to "conserve ammo" rather than fire frivolously. Fuel, water, food and ammunition trucks arrived outside As Shatra on Wednesday after a day's absence.

Amphibious assault vehicles have suffered mechanical breakdowns and several have been cannibalized for parts. Another battalion lost two Monday at An Nasiriyah.

This was a night many 1st Battalion 4th Marines will long remember.

Driving in the dark with the aid of night vision goggles, at least three Marine battalions plowed through fierce resistance in and around An Nasiriyah, a city of 300,000 and a southern stronghold for Saddam's Baath party.

Gunshots at the rear of the battalion's convoy Monday had led them to accelerate their move north from the city's southern outskirts. Artillery crews fired into houses along the route that had been identified as resistance centers.

The convoy of amphibious assault vehicles and soft-back Humvees sped into the city around midnight Monday, stopping at a checkpoint for a security briefing. For crew chief John Massey, an enlisted reservist from Florida, the worst point was not the battle that followed but "at that last checkpoint—I ran over a dead body." He said the victim was wearing civilian clothes and appeared to have already been run over.

An amphibious vehicle broke down—in hot enemy territory tenuously held by another battalion. Just ahead, a house in the city center that had been hit by artillery spewed balls of orange fire.

As the convoy paused for 20 minutes, more mortars were shot toward houses in the city center, from which gunfire had been heard. Then the Marines blazed a trail of fire through a hail of bullets whizzing over their heads. Seeing a resister holding a poster of Saddam, Hospitalman 3rd Class Erik Van Houten opened up with his M16 from the hatch of his amphibious assault vehicle.

Soon Van Houten and everyone else around him had expended four or five magazines of bullets—roughly 100 rounds apiece—at people who, through the Marines' night vision goggles, appeared to be threats. Two Marines from other units who were in nearby houses were reported to have suffered "friendly fire" bullet wounds to the leg and arm. No other American casualties were reported.

"The guys behind us said they saw stuff flying over our heads and hit the guy who was firing at us," said Lance Cpl. Asher Boucher.

Several hours north of An Nasiriyah, the convoy came upon a burned-out bus surrounded by indistinguishable bodies and body parts. There was also a person in civilian clothes who may have been dead or alive and another in olive drab clothing who was injured and pleading for mercy.

Nearby was a small boy about age 4 who appeared to have been blasted nearly in half but was trying to move. Marines radioed a request for a local ambulance service to be called to assist him.

The boy's plight moved the Marines.

"I've seen more in the last nine hours than I've seen in my entire life," Massey said.


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

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-MARINES