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Slow going on the road to Najaf

NEAR NAJAF, Iraq—After three long days crossing the desert, we stopped Monday night just a few miles short of our destination because Iraqis were firing artillery just ahead.

It's the second night in a row that we've been close to action. I'm traveling with the approximately 100 soldiers of the 7th Combat Support Group, an advance unit of the 3rd Combat Support Command of the Army's V Corps.

We've got a few dozen trucks in our convoy carrying fuel, food, water, ammunition and other supplies for a base we'll set up that is codenamed "Rams," after the St. Louis Rams pro football team. We've heard about other supply bases being set up on the road to Baghdad called "Saints" and "Lions."

On Sunday night, we halted a few miles outside of Nasiriyah, where some of that day's heaviest fighting took place. On Monday, we made a hard push north, traversing more than 100 miles, nearly as far as we went on the previous three days put together.

On those maps you see of troop movements, we're going up the left-most fork.

We stopped abruptly Monday night on word that artillery shells were being fired just ahead. We haven't seen them, but tanks moved in front of us to engage the enemy. The tanks make us feel better. I don't know what's going to happen.

Our destination, Najaf, is a small city roughly 70 miles south of Baghdad. The closest troops to Baghdad, members of the 3rd Infantry Division, are about 30 miles farther north in the town of Karbala. Members of the 1st Marine Division are behind us, back around Nasiriyah.

Najaf made news when U.S. Army troops on Sunday took control of a factory suspected of producing chemical weapons. U.N. weapons inspectors on Monday, however, said they were unaware of any large-scale sites in Najaf where such weapons could be produced.

We left our post in Kuwait on Friday and moved slowly the first two days. On Sunday, we spent much of the day waiting in the sun before starting a six-hour drive in the middle of the afternoon.

I sit in the back seat of a Humvee. It's a metal seat; none of the comfort of a regular car. Visibility is poor because of the dust and sand kicked up by the vehicles.

The landscape changed Monday as the flat, featureless desert gave way to dunes and rocks. At one point on our long drive, we all screamed because we saw a tree. Another time, we saw grass.

We also passed a huge herd of camels, hundreds of them with no one else in sight. A few times, we passed Iraqi people in vehicles or on foot. Children flashed "V" signs at us, though we don't know if they meant "peace" or "victory."

Sometimes in the middle of the open desert, we passed a sign that indicated we were on the right route. Supply routes have been codenamed after cities like Boston and Ottawa. We saw a little sign that said "Ottawa."

Some of the other codenames the military is using as the supply lines are created in southern Iraq are just as random. For instance, rest areas for convoys have been named after heavy-truck manufacturers. There's Kenworth, Mack and Peterbilt.

It's all so incongruous.

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(Laughlin reports for The Miami Herald.)

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

Iraq

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