NORTHWEST BAGHDAD—U.S. soldiers charging into suburbs northwest of Baghdad were greeted first by clusters of waving and cheering Iraqis, then by a running gunfight in a heartbeat on Sunday.
Before it was over, a 27-year-old soldier had dashed into a cluster of ammunition and fuel supply vehicles, two of them on fire. Under heavy enemy fire, he drove a huge fuel supply truck away to keep it from blowing up.
"I just started punching buttons and moving levers, and it started moving," said Spc. Timmy Melia, 27, of Omaha, Neb. "It was going to blow up, and we need the fuel, so it had to be moved."
The ammunition supply truck continued to burn, its cargo exploding like giant firecrackers for the next two hours.
The 3rd Brigade of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division left its camp about 25 miles southwest of the Iraqi capital about dawn on Sunday. The brigade crossed the Euphrates River and entered the outskirts of Baghdad late Sunday morning.
The foray into Baghdad started out pleasantly. Large groups of people, children and adults alike, waved at the Americans.
The three-lane highway was deserted except for the Americans. Then the brigade overtook the destruction left by previous night's firefights, evidence that other elements of the 3rd Infantry had come this way the night before.
Blackened Iraqi tanks and dead Iraqi soldiers littered the roadside. Dogs fed on some of the dead. The smells of gunpowder and exhaust mingled. Some Iraqis had attempted to ambush the arriving American troops, but they couldn't muster much against the Americans' heavy Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and precision air attacks.
"I saw a hundred dead bodies today, easily," said Spc. Vince Austin, 24, of Brooklyn, N.Y.
Although Iraqi opposition seemed to be evaporating in the sweltering heat, things started happening fast. The 3rd Brigade stopped in the middle of the highway as its leaders, including the division commander, Maj. Gen. Buford Blount III, huddled to revise their plans for a quick strike around the periphery of the city.
Col. Dan Allyn and the rest of the 3rd Brigade's command took up headquarters at a vacated industrial site.
About 6:30 p.m., as Allyn and other commanders gathered to refine their battle plans, an Iraqi dressed in black approached a machine gun-mounted Humvee scout near the gate of the complex. The soldiers manning the gun kept telling the Iraqi to get down. He kept coming with his hands up, then dropped to his knees, diverting attention from three or four gunmen in a field nearby.
The gunmen opened fire. Red and green tracer rounds flew past Allyn and the other commanders gathered at the hood of a Humvee. Ashes rained down as U.S. and Iraqi troops exchanged gunfire. The blue sky went gunpowder gray.
Bullets flew so close that they could be seen and heard.
An Iraqi rocket-propelled-grenade hit the scout Humvee. Another hit an ammunition supply truck, which ignited a fuel truck.
Melia ran toward the burning trucks amid a hail of bullets and moved an adjacent fuel truck out of the way.
Gunfire erupted from the houses on one side, and from the trees on the other. It became more intense farther up the road. Tanks led the way and cleared the road for the softer vehicles that followed.
The column left the highway and went down a street heading to the area designated to become brigade headquarters, entering an open neighborhood of mud brick houses and buildings. Gunfire could be heard in the rear and from the front.
The fight went on, sporadically, for about two hours. Moving, stopping, firing, moving on again. Air Force liaison officers traveling with the brigade called in more air support. An A-10 Warthog strafed the surrounding area and B-52s dropped a half-dozen 2,000-pound bombs on surrounding Iraqi positions.
The handful of Iraqi gunmen, including the decoy who had approached the Humvee, all lay dead. Five U.S. soldiers were wounded, and they were evacuated. Their conditions were not known Sunday evening.
As the sun set, machine guns could still be heard in the distance. The 3rd Brigade troops sat cross-legged on a concrete pad, talking about what they'd just been through.
Allyn was working the communications and making plans for Monday's action. The Bradleys were positioned defensively, scanning the fields with their thermal sights. Tanks were out front, scouts were on the roofs, aircraft were overhead. If more Iraqis come, they will die, just as they died on Sunday.
Harper reports for the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.