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War becoming all but routine for men of 1st Battalion 4th Marines

KUT, Iraq—After at least five engagements with Iraqi soldiers and paramilitaries, war is becoming all but routine for the men of the 1st Battalion 4th Marines.

The battalion has taken enemy fire at Nasiriyah, Ash Shatra, and twice in Kut Al Hayy.

On Thursday, it got into another firefight with Iraqi Republican Guard forces on the outskirts of this agricultural and industrial city along the Tigris River.

The British were defeated here by the Turks in 1916, suffering huge loss of life in a famous siege. Thursday, the Americans were neither victors nor vanquished. After fierce fighting, the Americans moved out, heading on a road that would loop around Kut itself and place them further up the road toward Baghdad. The Iraqi forces stayed behind.

"We went up there to try to block the bridge, to keep the Iraqis from fleeing across it," said Lt. Col. John Mayer, the battalion's commanding officer.

Block the bridge they did, but the Iraqis put up fierce resistance and in the process damaged two Marine Hummvees and one amphibious assault vehicle. There were no American casualties.

Leaving at 7:30 a.m. local time, the battalion's four companies headed north up Highway 7, seeking Iraqi surrender or annihilation. On Wednesday, U.S. commanders had received a report that the Iraqis were placing mines along the road. That did not deter the Marines, who said they considered the mines mere "obstacles."

Within a few minutes, a Marine Hummvee hit a mine on the side of the road. The vehicle was destroyed but the driver was unhurt. A few minutes later, a second Hummvee hit another mine in the road, again damaging the vehicle but not its occupants. Engineers inspected the road ahead and determined it safe.

Inside other vehicles, Marines were cautioned to be alert whenever they went outside, if only to answer the call of nature.

"Don't go off the hardball (pavement)," barked Sgt. Ryan Flynn of Alpha Company's 3rd Platoon.

Then came word that hundreds of Iraqis were moving south, waving anything white they could find and ready to surrender.

The Americans prepared to do "hasty searches" of anyone they encountered. But by the time Americans left the area eight hours later, they had taken only a few dozen prisoners.

Suddenly a report of incoming mortars crackled over the radio in the 3rd Platoon's amphibious assault vehicle.

"It won't hurt us unless it lands on top of the vehicle," said Lance Corp. Daniel McGinley, a member of the vehicle crew. "Artillery, that will kill us."

Other companies, meanwhile, were taking erratic fire. Outside, Marine Cobra helicopters circled and unleashed Hellfire missiles at the back of the building from which the mortars were being fired. People in civilian clothing stood in front of the building, waving a white sheet.

The 3rd Platoon dropped the vehicle's ramp. Rifles slung over their shoulders, the platoon scurried down. A few minutes later they quickly scurried back up, shouting and shoving. All accounted for: Gall, Flynn, Deremiah, Keebe, Contres, Gorber, Burnett, Reyes, Weldy, Zarman, Whartron, Elosa, Thompson, Scott, Dudly, Thurman.

"There are some artillery pieces out there," said Gall. "The engineers are going to blow it up."

Small arms fire—apparently from Iraqi AK-47s—continued. Then something whizzed overhead.

"That was a rocket," said Gall. "That's not good."

One of the projectiles, a rocket propelled grenade, skipped across the ground and hit the Charlie company fire support team's amphibious assault vehicle. It was the last of three fired at the vehicle and it jolted everyone inside. But the grenade did not explode; it only dented the armor near the vehicle's tracks.

"Had it exploded, it probably would have destroyed the vehicle and killed the person in the turret," said Sgt. Drew Andrews, who was inside the vehicle.

The person in the turret, Maj. Jim Swafford, a reservist from Dallas who served in the first Gulf War, but now otherwise works as a software engineer, said he saw the grenade hurtling toward his vehicle. It got his adrenalin pumping, he said.

"I was waiting for an explosion," he said. "If it had exploded, it would have taken us out."

The grenade had been fired from behind a tree line that soon became the target of nearly every gun in the battalion.

Then anti-aircraft guns began targeting the Cobra helicopters, which had been attacking the mortar and artillery sites. Soon the Cobras attacked those, too, leaving big black clouds of smoke rising into the air.

"There's a bunch of anti-aircraft guns out there," McGinley said.

A big boom followed.

"There ain't any anti-aircraft guns there anymore," he said.

Engineers on the ground found some mortars. They blew those up, producing another loud boom. The battalion's gunner, Tom Parks, killed an Iraqi from the turret of his amphibious vehicle.

After nearly six hours of fighting, the battalion had kept the bridge blocked. Now they were heading out of town, encountering hundreds of civilians along southbound Highway 7, smiling, waving and cheering.

Inside the 3rd Platoon vehicle, the talk, which earlier had turned on beer, fast cars, pizzas and girlfriends, was of retirement.

"It's weird, ma'am," said Gall. "The first night I was here anything that went boom scared the p--- out of me. Now it doesn't bother me. I sleep through artillery barrages."

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

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