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Villagers help U.S. troops find Iraqi arms cashes

NEAR KUT AL HAYY, Iraq—The 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, stopped Sunday beside a sign that said: "Welcome to the Governate of Wasit." Their reception, however, was a bit too warm: Over the next 12 hours Iraqi fighters fired rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, artillery and AK-47 rifle fire at the Marines.

Yet by Monday evening, the Marines in this area of central Iraq declared it one of the best days yet. None of them were wounded, and at the town of Qal at Sukkar, south of here, they were cheered by townspeople who helped them uncover large caches of weapons.

"It was the craziest day I ever had," said Sgt. Sam Mortimer of Oregon.

Together, Marines at Kut al Hayy and Qal at Sukkar captured more than 200 mortars, more than 100 AK-47 rifles, three anti-aircraft missiles and a number of Russian-made grenade launchers.

The most intriguing find was 10 empty boxes of 120 mm mortar rounds that were stamped "GHQ Jordan Armed Forces, Dir of Planning & Org, Amman-Jordan."

Jordan, which borders Iraq in the west, is considered a friend and ally of the United States. It also has a large Palestinian population. In Jordan, a government official said that if Jordanian-provided weapons had been used in Iraq, they were sold before the U.N. weapons embargo went into effect after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

At Kut al Hayy, the Marines' battle began about 11 p.m. local time Sunday, when eight or nine Iraqis were seen scurrying into a position north of the battalion. Marine psychological operations officers responded by broadcasting loud warnings in Arabic.

The Iraqis replied with a series of mortars and two rocket-propelled grenades. They also fired automatic rifles and one artillery round. All missed.

"They've not got a very good aim," said 1st Lt. Mike Borneo of Mount Laurel, N.J., a weapons platoon commander, who was at the front about 300 feet from the Iraqis.

"They just pretty much guess and fire out."

The Marines responded with mortars, machine-gun fire and artillery.

Monday, they found some of the Iraqis' belongings and weapons in a nearby streambed, through which the Iraqis had fled. There were several black grenade launchers with Russian writing on their handles, mortars and two pairs of black boots stuck in the mud. Five more discarded uniforms were found along the roadside, said battalion intelligence officer Capt. Mike Wilbur.

For the Marines at Qal at Sukkar, the day began tensely, with concern that any citizen could be a suicide bomber. But by the day's end, the Marines felt comfortable that many citizens appreciated their presence.

"We've had good support from everyone we talked to," said Capt. Dan Rose of Dallas, a forward air controller who helped coordinate the Cobra helicopters that supported the operation.

A Marine helicopter bombed the town's Baath Party headquarters at dawn. Then a citizen approached the Marines and volunteered to take them to the building. Party officials had fled, and citizens had begun looting the building. Residents clapped and cheered the 50 Marine infantrymen who entered the town.

"They were concerned over whether we were staying," said 1st Sgt. Brad Kasal of Afton, Iowa, who helped lead Marines through the town. "They said they feel protected. That's why they want us to stay."

Late in the day, two Iraqis approached the truck manned by the psychological operations division. An interpreter spoke with them.

"They said, Don't leave us," said the interpreter. "They said, `If you want anything, we are ready.'"

After several days of bloody fighting, Marines believed their contact with this township was an important step in winning the war and going home.

"I've never seen people so afraid," said Lance Cpl. David Stewart of Louisiana.

"We did a good thing here today."


(Gerlin reported from Kut al Hayy, Peterson from Qal at Sukkar. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this report from Amman, Jordan.)


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