MARINE COMBAT HEADQUARTERS, Iraq—A battle Friday for a crucial crossroads 12 miles southeast of Baghdad involved the heaviest combat Marines had undertaken so far in Iraq, commanders said, as members of the Republican Guard put up what one commander called "a coordinated defense."
The Marines lost three of their best tanks in the two-hour battle and at least eight Marines were wounded, though they still captured their last objective before starting operations into Baghdad.
The fierceness of the fight was a glum reminder for the Marines that their next attacks will be into a city of more than 5 million people defended by the most fanatical of Saddam Hussein's followers, with their backs to the wall.
Asked when the Marines would begin operations into Baghdad itself, Col. Larry Brown, operations officer for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said, "Soon. As soon as we can."
Lt. Col. Dave Pere, senior watch officer at the Marines' combat operations center, said the battle for the crossroads was "the heaviest resistance of the war." It forced Marines to dismount their armored personnel carriers for the first time to engage the Iraqis and clear them from trenches and revetments.
The crossroads is one of the anchor points of a loose cordon that the Marines and the U.S. Army's V Corps intend to hold around Baghdad, to keep military vehicles from entering or leaving but allow civilians to pass.
Eight Marines were wounded in the battle when one of their 70-ton Abrams tanks was destroyed and two others were hit by rocket-propelled grenades, which can immobilize the Abrams but cannot penetrate its armor.
Two Cobra attack helicopters were hit by ground fire and made emergency landings, but returned to their bases in southern Iraq and were expected to return to the battle Saturday.
Three tank companies from Regimental Combat Team 5, with some 50 Abrams tanks and more armored fighting vehicles, were probing north on Highway 6 when they ran into apparent elements of the Republican Guard's al Nida division, guarding the southern approaches to the capital.
Marine commanders thought al Nida's 42nd and 43 brigades were dug in several miles north of the firefight.
"They were volley-firing RPGs," Pere said, adding that the enemy, estimated at an armored company, two mechanized infantry battalions and three unidentified elements, was well entrenched in dug-out positions.
The enemy tanks were reported to be Soviet-era T-55s rather than the T-72s issued to most Republican Guard units. Those are newer and more powerful than the T-55s, but usually no match for the Abrams.
"We've always thought the stiffest resistance would be in and around Baghdad," Pere said. He said field units had reported taking "lots" of enemy prisoners of war, but no hard numbers were immediately available.
The RCT 5 tank company pulled back to let Marine F/A-18 and Harrier jets and Cobra attack helicopters pound the Iraqi lines before pushing on to capture the crossroads.
One leg of the crossroads, Highway 6, runs northwest into the heart of Baghdad. Another loops around the eastern edges of the capital, heavily populated by Shiite Muslims believed to be resentful of Saddam's predominantly Sunni Muslim regime.
Marines said the battle space had become so reduced—to just Baghdad and its immediate environs—that some 100 planes were stacked west of the capital Friday afternoon waiting their turn to bomb.
Elsewhere, Marine units discovered two 20-foot-long Iraqi missiles. There was no immediate word on what type of missiles they were, but Marines at the small village where they were found said they had consulted a manual and thought they were Frog 7s, a surface-to-surface rocket with a 42-mile range.
Marine intelligence officers warned that with American troops at Baghdad's doors, it was likely that pro-Saddam militias "operating in the vicinity of bypassed cities will attack to reassert control over some urban centers" and to limit the use of crucial roads.
Marine intelligence said renewed militia attacks were likely in Basra, Nasiriyah, Ash Shatra and Suq Ash Shukyuh and that an attack was possible on Qalat Sikar, an airfield in central Iraq that American forces seized this week.
But intelligence information also noted that only 20 to 30 of the feared Saddam Fedayeen remain in Nasiriyah, a southern city of more than 500,000 and the focus of the strongest resistance in the early days of the war.
Marines also were warned that Iraqi civilians perceived them as being "very rude" at highway checkpoints and did not like it when they burned, stomped on or tore the Iraqi flag, since it includes Allah's name.
"The perception that coalition forces are arrogant or dominating is a critical issue in the willingness of the local populace to cooperate and support efforts to root out the Baath Party apparatus," Marine intelligence said.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Andrea Gerlin, traveling with 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, south of Baghdad, contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.