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The battle for a Euphrates bridge is awesome and terrible—and strangely beautiful

OUTSKIRTS OF BAGHDAD, Iraq—The sights were awesome and terrible—and strangely beautiful—when Apache Company's Bradley Fighting Vehicles crossed the Euphrates River Wednesday for the first time since they entered Iraq 13 days ago.

On the causeway, a modern four-lane arch of concrete and steel, two vehicles that had been hit by tank or Bradley fire were burning. A gray-haired Iraqi soldier in bloody camouflage fatigues lay dead. Down a set of steps on a nearby embankment, three American soldiers treated a wounded Iraqi soldier who had been hit in the head by shrapnel.

On the far side of the bridge, U.S. tanks and Bradleys fired at Iraqi vehicles against a distant line of palm trees. Showers of red tracer rounds shot high into the air as burning vehicles exploded. Blasted trucks and burning vehicles littered the landscape in every direction. A thick pall of black smoke hung high in the air.

Below, the Euphrates flowed lazily, a thin brown ribbon of a river no more than 100 yards wide. A brown cow meandered through a deserted village street where the bridge met the far side of the river, a bell around its neck slowly clanking. Bull rushes and marsh grass rose higher than a man's head.

When Apache Company stopped for the night, global positioning devices showed downtown Baghdad just 20 miles ahead.

The attack that brought Apache Company here began shortly before 2 a.m. Wednesday local time as we waited just a few miles shy of the Karbala Gap. Task Force 3-7 Infantry, 3rd Infantry Division, had been told to expect a big battle there. But Iraqi opposition never materialized.

Intense U.S. air strikes from high-flying B-52 bombers preceded our advance. The concussions shook our armored vehicles more than 10 miles away. Artillery batteries opened up with a barrage of more than a hundred 155 mm rounds and dozens of salvos from multiple launch rocket systems. The rockets blazed across the sky like so many big fireworks. Apache helicopter gunships swept the way in front of us, cannons blazing.

Just after dawn, our column stopped in the gap, a narrow strip of land between the city of Karbala and a large man-made lake to our left. The brass had worried that the Iraqis might try to open the floodgates to the dam, engulfing American troops below in a deluge of water, but the lake was low: The water level didn't even reach the floodgates. They worried too that chemical weapons might be employed here in this choke point. That didn't happen, either.

Three old men emerged from a sandy ditch to our left, waving a large piece of white cardboard as a surrender flag. A pair of Bradley Fighting Vehicles roared up and troops dismounted, their weapons trained on the men. The soldiers searched the Iraqis, but they had no weapons. An Arabic-speaking officer arrived. The men told him that the Iraqi military had fled into Karbala. The three Iraqis were sent on their way, waving as we pulled out.

A couple of hours later, we stopped at a road junction while another convoy passed. About 30 men emerged from a military compound beside the road, their hands raised. Some laid down weapons at their feet. An American senior officer warned the company commander to remain vigilant.

"If they don't cooperate, then kill them," said Maj. Frank McClary, 39, of Andrews, S.C., Task Force 3-7 Infantry's operations officer.

Among the surrendering Iraqis were a colonel and lieutenant colonel. The colonel had been wounded in the morning's bombing. He told the Americans that he and his men were border guards who had had enough of fighting and wished to surrender.

As we reached the highway paralleling the Euphrates, self-propelled artillery was lined up from one end of the horizon to the other in front of us, firing steadily at Iraqi positions across the river. Palm trees on the other side of the highway marked the beginning of the fertile river bottomlands.

Suddenly, we were out of the desert. Date palms towered over rice and wheat fields. Military vehicles were lined up on both sides of the road, waiting to cross the river. Towering columns of oily black smoke rose above the tree line to the north.

Abandoned Iraqi foxholes and fighting positions lined both sides of the road, along with fresh shell holes where American artillery had exploded. There were fresh explosions in the distance and long bursts of heavy machine-gun fire.

A group of about a dozen Iraqi soldiers lay stripped naked and facedown in a freshly plowed field. Their hands were tied behind their backs. American soldiers stood guard over them, weapons at the ready. A few hundred yards away, a wounded Iraqi soldier lay in a thicket alongside the road. A medic walked over to tend to his wounds.

Wrecked and burning Iraqi armored vehicles and trucks with artillery pieces lay in twisted, blackened hulks alongside the road.

Mud-brick houses nestled under the palms, but their occupants remained largely out of sight. In front of one house, a man in a long red shirt stood and waved.

A mud-stained yellow and brown dog slipped across the road, dodging Bradleys and Humvees. A flock of white doves winged in perfect formation overhead. The setting was oddly biblical and completely at odds with the scenes of war that swirled past.

Closer to the river, two M-1 Abrams tanks were stuck up to their turrets in a muddy brown field. Across the road, a civilian car and a pickup truck lay smashed and shot up, their occupants unseen.

Once across the bridge, Apache Company, 1-30th Infantry, the unit that I've been living with for the past three weeks, hooked its Bradleys south. A Bradley at the front of the column fired a burst of 25 mm machine-gun fire at a civilian truck, destroying it.

Suddenly, the radio crackled with reports that three Iraqi soldiers had surrendered to one of Apache's platoons. The Iraqis were cooperative and led the soldiers to a cache of AK-47 rifles, ammunition, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades in a couple of railway shipping containers.

"That's a good score," said Sgt. Matthew Gadzilinksi, 24, of Milwaukee, Wis.

Afterwards the Iraqis sat on their haunches smoking cigarettes while an American soldier kept an eye on them.

One of the Iraqis identified himself as a lieutenant colonel who had been in charge of 15 men at the camp for the past two years. The U.S. attack took them by surprise, he indicated, with a combination of hand gestures and broken English. Most of his guys had fled when the first bombs fell.

I asked him why he decided to surrender, but he didn't understand the question, so I offered him a cigarette instead. He offered me one of his. We traded, and shared a smoke.

"American or British?" he asked.

"American," I said.

"Thank you, thank you very much," the lieutenant colonel said. "American army very good. Very good army."

I nodded my head. We slapped at mosquitoes in the darkness and smoked our cigarettes quietly as artillery and air strikes continued to thunder in the night.

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):

USIRAQ-BATTLE.

Iraq

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