NORTH OF NAJAF, Iraq—With preparations in place for an assault on Baghdad, U.S. Army troops and Marines throughout central Iraq turned their attention to more immediate danger Monday: Iraqi loyalists who harassed them throughout the day with fire from automatic rifles, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.
There was no report on total casualties, but at least one 3rd Infantry Division soldier died after a small group of Iraqi militiamen crept up in a vehicle close to where the soldiers were encamped west of the Euphrates River and opened fire with automatic rifles. Apache helicopter gunships responded by firing Hellfire missiles at the vehicle, killing its occupants.
Farther south, Marines fought battles near Nasariyah, and helicopters could be seen ferrying wounded from the area.
Military commanders at Marine headquarters near Nasariyah said the harassment hadn't slowed the advance of the main Army and Marine columns toward an eventual confrontation with Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard units near Baghdad.
But many of the units from north of Najaf to Nasariyah in the south spent the day holding off snipers, then setting out armed sentries and arranging their vehicles in defensive positions.
Commanders warned soldiers that they should no longer assume that Iraqi civilians are friendly. They were warned specifically to be suspicious of anyone approaching vehicles in a pickup truck.
"The problem is that we're sitting out here by these populated areas along the river, where they can see us and push out here and take potshots at us," said Lt. Col. Jack Kammerer, 40, the commander of Task Force 3-7 Infantry of the 3rd Infantry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team.
Marines were still battling Iraqi loyalists at Nasariyah, the scene Sunday of the toughest fighting so far in the campaign to topple Saddam's regime. Iraqi forces counterattacked Monday with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. Marines responded with Cobra helicopters, tank fire and heavy artillery, leveling an entire block in the city where Marines had identified an enemy emplacement.
North of Nasariyah, the Marines' 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance unit, which crossed the Euphrates on Sunday, ran into a powerful ambush by Iraqi troops on Highway 1 about 12 miles northwest of Nasariyah. The unit withdrew, according to commanders familiar with the operation, and called in airstrikes. The unit was then able to advance without casualties.
Commanders at all levels warned their troops to be cautious. At Kilo Company of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, Capt. Joseph Bevan, the executive officer, told his unit that Iraqi defenders reportedly were sending women and children in front of U.S. tanks. When the tanks stopped, the Iraqis fired rocket-propelled grenades at the vehicles, Bevan said. So when U.S. units go through Nasariyah, Bevan concluded, "anything that moves, dies."
Staff Sgt. Dustin Hoopers of Delta Company of the 7th Engineering Support Battalion summoned his 20-man support team to warn them about Saddam supporters dressed as civilians and to make sure they are prepared to deal with them.
"I have no intention of sending anyone home in a body bag," he said. "If we're going to meet fanatics wanting to go in glory to Allah, I want you to be ready to send them there."
Iraqi civilians generally had been seen as unthreatening during the dash through the largely unpopulated desert of southern Iraq. The attacks came as the troops entered the more populated areas along the banks of Iraq's two historic rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris.
Skirmishes took place all along the lengthy American lines.
Armored columns from the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd and 3rd brigade combat teams came under sporadic artillery and mortar fire from Iraqi positions in Najaf late Sunday. A journalist accompanying U.S. troops was reported wounded and evacuated by helicopter. Tanks from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team fired back at Iraqi positions in the city with several 120 mm high explosive rounds and 25 mm fire from their Bradley fighting vehicles.
At around 9:30 a.m. local time Monday, 155 mm artillery batteries attached to Task Force 3-7 Infantry fired nearly three dozen shells at Iraqi positions east of the Euphrates, but it was unclear what they had targeted. Sporadic artillery fire and airstrikes continued throughout the day. Visibility was cut to less than 300 yards most of the day by haze and periodic sandstorms.
Iraqis also mounted actions in other parts of Iraq. Three Iraqi T-55 tanks tried to infiltrate the southern Rumeila oilfield—which U.S. Marines captured Friday—but they were knocked out by British air assault units guarding the 1.6 million-barrel-a-day field.
Two British bomb-disposal experts were missing and two were wounded when they came under fire near the southern city of Basra, Iraq's second-largest, which remained under Saddam's control despite predictions that its mainly Shiite Muslim population would revolt quickly against his predominantly Sunni Muslim regime.
British troops sweeping the northern end of the al Faw peninsula ran into a battalion of Iraqi mechanized infantry and called in U.S. Marine attack helicopters and Harrier "jump jets" to strike them, said spokesman Maj. Fraser Smith of the Royal Marines.
With sniping around them and combat ahead, soldiers prepared.
Near Nasariyah, Marine Hospitalman 2nd Class Juan Bernardo began wrapping gauze cravats into tourniquets, as the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines got ready to cross the Euphrates. Other Marines cleaned their weapons or stocked up on ammunition. First Sgt. Mark Lopez of Alpha Company reminded everyone to take a grenade. "I'm going to kill some Iraqi soldiers," Lopez said.
Capt Chris Griffin, the commanding officer of Alpha Company, warned his platoon leaders not to let their men become complacent, noting that early advances in rural southern Iraq might have made American forces overconfident so that they went "too far, too fast."
Tension was high. One angry platoon leader spent part of the morning ranting about a Marine who had turned his back on watch duty to protect himself from the wind.
Halfway through the morning, two Iraqi men in civilian clothes walked freely along the stretch of road the 1st Battalion controlled while its vehicles were on the shoulders, until a reporter pointed out their presence. Someone farther back in the column, presumably trying to be friendly to locals, had let them through. Finally, several Marines escorted them outside a berm that marked the battalion's territory.
Later in the day, several vehicles containing men in civilian clothes approached the controlled area to deliver a message to the battalion. This time, they were met by a large team of marksmen and snipers.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Matt Schofield and Juan O. Tamayo contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-BATTLE