OUTSIDE BAGHDAD, Iraq—After hundreds of miles of highway travel, U.S. Marines on Monday finally used their amphibious assault vehicles the way they were intended—floating across a tributary of the Tigris River to take up positions near Rashid Airport, east of downtown Baghdad.
Like a row of giant, olive-green elephants, the amphibious Amtracs roared down the muddy banks of the Diyala River, splashed into the water and lumbered out on the other side.
"Usually we do it in the ocean," said Amtracker Lance Cpl. Casey Mattox, 22, a reservist from Foley, Ala.
More than 10,000 Marines crossed the Diyala, a 100-foot-wide ribbon of water that joins the Tigris south of Baghdad, becoming the second major U.S. force on Baghdad's outskirts. On the opposite side of the Iraqi capital, the Army's 3rd Infantry Division controls the international airport and has made forays into Baghdad neighborhoods.
Opposition was light to the Marines' advance, though two Marines were killed when an artillery shell struck a vehicle as it rolled across a bridge. It was unclear who fired the shell.
The Marines' advance toward Baghdad was halted Monday when engineers discovered mines along the road. The mines are expected to be cleared Tuesday and there was little doubt of the troops' destination.
"We're going to keep pushing northwest toward the center of the city," said Capt. Joseph Bevan, executive officer for K Company.
Marines found hundreds of discarded Republican Guard uniforms along the roadway, apparently tossed there by Iraqi deserters fleeing ahead of the advance. They also found weapons and ammunition, including a large surface-to-surface missile.
In a military building that had been booby trapped by the Iraqis, members of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines found bunkers filled with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.
They also seized 30 prisoners of war, including some who carried Baath Party membership cards or wore military uniforms.
Many of the Marines crossed the Diyala over bridges, but others were tucked inside nearly submerged Amtracs that had brought them hundreds of miles along contested Iraqi roads and through towns where they met fierce resistance.
Marine infantrymen were uncertain of their vehicles' water-worthiness. The aluminum vehicles leak when plunged in water.
"They were wondering if we would sink," said Lance Cpl. Zachary Schudrowitz, 20, a Marine reservist, college student and part-time Wal-Mart employee.
The vehicles, each of which is equipped with four bilge pumps that can remove 440 gallons of water per minute, leaked copiously but none sank.
"The bilge pumps are the only thing that keep these thing from sinking," said Lance Cpl, Brent Rishel, an Amtrac crew chief from Long Beach, Miss.
Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines began the day about six miles from the heart of Baghdad. Artillery destroyed several tanks and about a dozen gun emplacements across the river.
The artillery fire also damaged a bridge Marines had planned to use to enter the city. Engineers preparing a portable bridge were attacked by light arms. When the firefight was over, a bulldozer got too close to the water and slipped in.
The Marines made the crossing while not wearing padded chemical protective suits, which had become stifling in the 90-degree weather. Iraqi citizens, who had been sullen and suspicious, appeared friendly on Monday, waving and cheering for Marines who headed toward the center of the city.
But some Marines were grumbling. The entire 1st Marine Division had been ordered to clean trash and debris from the roadsides and fields where they had stayed.
Commanding Gen. James Mattis was said to be "furious" about the conditions of sites where Marines had stopped, leaving behind MRE wrappers and human waste. "I agree. It's disgusting. Instead of the highway of death, it looks like the highway of trash," said Gunnery Sgt. Craig Morris, referring to an incident from the first Gulf War, in which allied aircraft killed hundreds of Iraqi soldiers as they fled Kuwait on the highway to Iraq.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Andrea Gerlin with the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, and Juan O. Tamayo at Marine Combat Headquarters in Iraq contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.