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Marines encounter busloads of Iraqi fighters in civilian clothes

SOUTH OF AL KUT, Iraq—The journey to this point along two-lane Highway 7 has been surreal at times.

The battalion of Marines I'm traveling with has yet to come under artillery attack. It hasn't engaged Iraqi troops. It has suffered no casualties. Yet there are reminders of war everywhere, some of them downright weird.

Every once in a while, a big rickety bus will come screaming down the road toward the convoy. It's packed tight with men, most of them in civilian clothes, a few armed, some shoeless. These attacks of irregulars have happened five times now.

They always end the same: Marines aim their .50-caliber Humvee-mounted machine guns at the onrushing bus and open fire. The buses crash. Most onboard die. The rest are taken prisoner.

On Thursday, one bus crashed and Iraqi cash fluttered through the open windows, spilling down the highway and blowing into the neighboring fields. Nobody knew why so much money was on the bus, although some speculated it was the payment to the irregulars for their mission.

Highway 7 runs through farm country, rice and wheat mostly, north of the Euphrates River. Palm trees ring emerald-colored fields and red adobe farm homes. There are few cars or machines, few signs of modern technology. It's beautiful but primitive, a scene from a Bible storybook.

The convoy rolled through towns all along the way. Everywhere, town and country, there were roadside bunkers of dirt and sandbags. The Marines eyed them carefully, and sometimes fired into them if they were feeling a little spooked. So far, all have been empty.

We've stopped now, 40 miles shy of al Kut, where an estimated 10,000 members of the Baghdad Division of the Republican Guard are said to wait.

The 3rd Battalion of the 1st Marine Division is expected to wait perhaps a couple of days while the attack is planned. The Republican Guard in al Kut outnumbers the Marines here. Marines are counting on overwhelming air power to make up the difference when the attack begins. There are no announced plans for more men to be brought forward for the battle.

Meanwhile, the Marines rest. They could use it.


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

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