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Marine battalion comes under heavy fire, loses two in Baghdad

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The first sign of trouble came in the form of a red bus, loaded with a gang of men with weapons. Then came sniper fire from a warehouse. Before it was over, three Marines were wounded, at least one fatally. The warehouse lay in ruins, and the bus was a blackened hulk. Some of the men inside the bus were captured but others escaped in the fighting.

After a three-week drive from Kuwait without a single combat casualty, the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, part of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, arrived in eastern Baghdad on Tuesday to find a battlefield.

The first Marine to fall suffered a gunshot wound to the neck and was evacuated by helicopter.

Moments later, a young infantryman who had recently joined the battalion died of a chest wound at the scene.

A third Marine from the battalion was evacuated after he was hit in the back by shrapnel, believed to have come from American artillery that landed in the area.

M1 Abrams tanks, Cobra helicopters and A-10 Warthog aircraft were called in. Mortar rounds and artillery fire, coupled with bombs from the A-10 eventually leveled the building.

The Marines had crossed the Diyala River late Monday, camped for the night, then pressed into Baghdad in the early morning.

"Against a determined enemy, an attacking force is certain to endure death," the battalion's executive officer, Maj. David Holahan, said in expressing regret about the casualties. "They are determined."

The battalion's combat company later found numerous small caches of weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades, mortar rounds and surface-to-air missiles in the area.

A Navy doctor who went to the aid of the dying young infantryman said afterward that both victims of sniper fire had been outside their amphibious assault vehicles entering and searching buildings when they were hit.

He said the exchange had grown intense by the time he arrived, minutes after the second Marine was shot.

"They were shooting all around us," said Lt. Sean Breen, the doctor.

A unit of Navy SEALS, the branch's special force commandos, was assigned to support the battalion's combat companies as they continued to clear pockets of resistance.

Rear elements on Tuesday were following combat companies of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment and the 3rd Battalion 1st Marine Regiment who had crossed the Diyala on Monday in their amphibious vehicles.

Evidence of overnight fighting lay everywhere along the route: A burning fuel facility spewed a large black plume of smoke. Numerous charred Iraqi tanks littered the roadside. A picture of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein near the entrance to a bridge over the Diyala was defaced with crosshairs on the forehead and graffiti that read "USMC 1st tanks."

Iraqi military uniforms, presumably discarded by departing fighters, lay on the ground.

On the western side of the bridge across the river, the bodies of three dead Iraqis in civilian clothing slumped by the roadside. Marines guarded several enemy prisoners who still wore their uniforms.

Vehicles in the convoy were routed around a section of the road ahead because it had been marked as a minefield. Engineers were sent to clear it.

The Iraqis had heavily fortified their defensive positions along the western bank of the river, some in thick palm groves. They had dug large holes on the shoulder, lined them with cement and covered them with plywood and dirt in an effort to avoid detection.

American ammunition boxes were strewn about. Iraqi trucks filled with ammunition were left intact.

Villagers in the poor and largely Shiite sections that the convoy moved through lined the roads to welcome the arriving convoys. One man yelled "very good, very good." Another blew kisses at the Marines.

Adults and children picked up long branches to help lift power lines that hung too low for the convoy's larger vehicles to pass. One man who helped lift the lines, clearly nervous at the sight of so many weapons, asked Marine truck driver Lance Cpl. Angel Santos to put down his gun so the man could concentrate on reaching the branch.

Santos obliged for a moment and the man gave him a thumbs-up signal, a popular new gesture for Iraqis meeting U.S. troops, especially if the Iraqis speak no English.

"They don't want any more violence out here," said Santos as explosions thumped in the distance.

Some Marines handed out yellow-wrapped humanitarian aid rations to children.

One little boy who received a pack ran excitedly back to the doorstep of his family's mud house and drew an interested crowd.

The convoy continued past a horse-drawn cart that two men were using to transport a bathtub, a smalltime rancher whose cattle were crossing the road, and women tending large vegetable gardens.

Puffs of smoke from far-off burning vehicles were visible ahead as the convoy pulled into its position in a field, choking the entrance with vehicles. As word of the casualties arrived, one of the battalion's ambulances and several other vehicles set off to try to aid the Marine who died.

Breen said the Marines' wounds were so severe there was nothing they could do. Later, official reports from Marine Combat Headquarters listed two dead for the battalion, but there was no word on which Marine was the unit's second fatality.


(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Juan O. Tamayo contributed to this report from Marine Combat Headquarters, Iraq.)


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

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