AL HUWAYJAH, Iraq—U.S. soldiers on patrol about 25 miles west of Kirkuk were ambushed late Sunday night and found themselves in a fierce battle that left at least 16 enemy dead and one American soldier wounded.
"That's the worst fight anyone's been in in Kirkuk," said the patrol commander, Capt. Mario Soto, 26, of Atlanta.
"When there's a 30- to 40-minute fight with A-10s, Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicle support, the war is not over."
The action took place under a three-quarter moon on the outskirts of a small village.
A scout patrol of seven Humvees from the 1st Battalion, 63rd Armored Regiment had pulled to either side of the road, doused its lights and was waiting to see if there was any activity in the area.
Townspeople had complained that loyalists to Saddam Hussein had been threatening them with weapons and stealing cars.
As the patrol waited silently, a Chevrolet Impala approached from the rear.
Soldiers stopped it and found men with loaded AK-47 rifles.
As they were questioning the men, three Toyota pickups approached one after the other from the front.
The American patrol was bathed in light from headlights, front and rear.
Suddenly, heavy firing erupted from a complex of buildings about 350 yards away.
As he returned fire with a machine gun mounted on a Humvee, one soldier was hit with a bullet in the abdomen.
He was carried behind a vehicle, where a companion held his hand and gave him encouragement while bullets kicked up dust all around them and zinged over their heads.
The wounded soldier, who remained conscious, said he just wanted to make it back home to his wife and to go to the movies.
He was later evacuated to an Army surgical center, where his condition was reported as good.
He cannot be identified, because the Army has not yet notified his family.
As the battle raged, an A-10 Warthog, a plane especially effective in support of ground troops, swooped in and fired a laser-guided missile and its cannon at the complex.
Tanks and Bradleys appeared and took up the fight.
The soldiers in the patrol cheered.
"Here comes the cavalry," shouted one.
When it was over, soldiers found 16 bodies of enemy fighters.
There may be more still hidden by the dense vegetation around the complex of buildings.
The Americans also took 15 prisoners from the vehicles that had approached them before the fighting started.
The prisoners had been armed with AK-47s, sniper rifles and grenades.
The battalion commander, Lt. Col. Ken Riddle, 41, of Leesburg, Fla., said four ethnic groups are vying for control of the region around Kirkuk in northern Iraq.
"We're expecting more fighting like that," he said.
"As these groups start to reorganize, I think it becomes more dangerous."
For most of the soldiers involved, it was their first taste of combat in a war that was declared over by President Bush weeks ago.
"That was the real deal," said Sgt. Manuel Garza, 34, of Brownsville, Texas.
"I just opened up when I saw all those rounds kicking dirt around the Humvee."
The patrol's top sergeant was proud of his troops.
"There's no doubt about it: They did what they were trained to do and did it well" said Sgt. 1st Class Michael Williamson, 33, of Weir, Kan.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.