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101st Airborne ramps up offensive campaign in south central Iraq

CENTRAL IRAQ—After a steady three-day build up, some 13,000 of the 101st Airborne Division's troops—including its headquarters—are now in key areas of south central Iraq. At least two of its infantry brigades are securing bridges and lines of communication in and around the cities of Najaf and Nasiriyah.

"This is the heart and soul of the division, and we're pretty far north," said Maj. Trey Cate, public affairs official with the 101st.

The moving of its headquarters from northern Kuwait to deep inside Iraq makes it clear that the division is ramping up its offensive campaign. They've already taken the Baath Party headquarters in Najaf.

The 101st's headquarters group began its push north from camps in northern Kuwait early Sunday morning in a long convoy of 115 vehicles and 290 people. Two additional groups, numbering about 100 vehicles each, followed the headquarters unit. The effect was one of a slow-moving sandstorm, rumbling loudly through Kuwait, then crossing the border.

If there were masses waiting to be liberated there, they were difficult to spot among the hard-faced young men who stood at the side of the road, giving the occasional obscene gesture.

They stared hard, and did not look away.

Just beyond the abandoned United Nation's headquarters at the Kuwait-Iraqi line, there were hundreds of Iraqi people, milling about potholed streets and decrepit buildings. A few made a hand to mouth gesture that looked like a request for food. They did so without smiling.

Three armored Humvee platoons (19 vehicles) guarded the procession. The commander of the Humvees, Capt. Kenneth Hutchison, gave his troops simple directions: "No civilian will interact with this convoy and make sure the gunners are on their toes."

The group had been told by intelligence sources that Iraqis were stringing piano wire high over the streets at night to try to decapitate gunners on top of trucks.

The convoy wasn't in Iraq for two hours when one of the Humvees opened fire with its .50-caliber machine gun. At least one Iraqi with an AK-47 had popped up from a roadside hole, said 2nd Lt. Joseph Benvenuto. No U.S. troops were injured and the outcome for the shooter was unclear. The convoy just kept on rolling.

At several points along the way, civilian trucks barreled down the side of the road from one direction while an encampment of nomads sat on the other. Sometimes a shepherd would move a herd of goats onto the highway, stopping traffic for a moment.

"Friend or foe, friend or foe? Jesus," Hutchison muttered to himself.

Hutchison's vehicle, a soft-shell Humvee with no mounted gun, rode at the front of the convoy and was particularly vulnerable. The driver kept an automatic weapon across his lap. In the back seat, another soldier had his gun pointed out the window, trained on every person they passed.

There was ample evidence of British and U.S. military presence along the way. Hand-painted plywood signs pointed to refueling stops and streams of trucks, tanks and special forces whizzed by on their way toward where the 3rd Infantry Division was dug in on the front.

The convoy stopped late Sunday night near the city of Samawah and soldiers listened as artillery shells from the 82nd Airborne Division launched in loud pops, whizzing overhead and booming in the direction of Samawah. The city's skyline was visible, as were the flashes that followed.

Monday, the troops pushed into their camp, high up on a plateau.

Before they got there, though, some of the soldiers took prisoners of war outside of a fuel stop. There were some two dozen Iraqi men walking down the side of the road with a group of eight women, some carrying infants, followed by a donkey-drawn cart.

The men, in robes or pants and shirts, said they wanted to turn themselves in to avoid being conscripted by Saddam Hussein. They had no identification and switched their stories several times.

The U.S. soldiers handed out water bottles and then seated the men against a dirt wall. The women were allowed to sit on higher ground.

With big guns pointed at them, a few of the Iraqis smoked cigarettes.

Mostly, they sat silently and stared. And they never looked away.


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