Dispatch from the 101st
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 30, 2003
NAJAF, Iraq -- Their rifles ready, the soldiers of Charlie Company spread out across the brown-gray desert sand, crossed a farmer's brilliant green field and irrigation ditch, then disappeared against a distant oasis of palms on an all-night march to their attack position.
Nearly four weeks after leaving Fort Campbell, Ky., the No Slack battalion of the 101st Airborne Division was finally about to engage the enemy.
No Slack, the 2nd Battalion of the 327th Infantry, and its two fellow battalions from the 327th replaced the 3rd Infantry Division outside Najaf Saturday, with orders to attack outlying enemy troops and keep a nearby U.S. supply route open.
A shortage of fuel, ammunition and food for units in the north is slowing the U.S. advance toward Baghdad, commanders here say, and they must prevent Iraqi soldiers from harrying the fuel tankers and cargo trucks crowding the broken, sand-and-asphalt road running southeast of Najaf.
"We're attacking to block," Lt. Col. Chris Hughes, commander of the 2nd Battalion, told his company commanders and officers at a planning meeting Saturday morning.
"They're going to come out of their hides and try to find out what happened to that (3rd Infantry) armor. ... What we need to do is find these personnel, find their weapons, and destroy them."
No shots had been fired by Saturday evening, but the battalion was on high alert. Flares could be seen in the outskirts of the city, likely from Iraqi forces trying to get a fix on American positions, and U.S. artillery lobbed several shells at government and military targets inside Najaf.
Most of No Slack, including about 400 infantrymen, support staff and officers, took up positions late Saturday and early this morning along roads and trails the enemy fighters have used to try to reach the supply route and nearby U.S. fuel and ammo dumps.
Iraqi fighters have tried to hit the U.S. supply route every night for the past seven, often at a terrible cost. Forty to 60 each night have been cut down by U.S. soldiers safely ensconced in Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, which are impervious to the Iraqi militia's small arms and rocket-propelled grenades.
In one field, the bodies of dozens of Iraqi fighters festered in the hot sun Saturday, and several bombed-out pick-up trucks -- some with human remains still in them -- lined feeder roads to the supply route.
The arrival of the Airborne's 327th Infantry freed the 3rd Infantry Division -- a heavily mechanized force backed by tanks, armored personnel carriers and helicopters -- to move north to engage the Iraqi Republican Guard ringing Baghdad.
All morning Saturday, the 3rd ID's desert-beige Bradleys and Abramses rumbled down a main road out of town, their steel tracks drumming like rolling thunder on the battered asphalt.
The 101st Airborne, which is light infantry, also is better equipped to dig out stubborn pockets of fighters and handle the unconventional sort of combat that troops are likely to encounter here.
"You get around a town and you start dealing with locals, car bombs, snipers, people with their hands up, street fighting -- that's what we're trained for," Hughes said Saturday afternoon as C Company marched out in the formation of a giant cigar, blunt end first.
As he spoke, a white sport utility vehicle rolled up to a nearby artillery battery. Hughes and about everyone else who noticed quickly swung their field glasses toward it, then watched pensively as the vehicle crept slowly past.
One of the dangers facing U.S. soldiers here is ambiguity: Is the civilian coming toward you friend or foe? Already, the wrong answer has proven deadly.
Near 2nd Battalion's position Saturday afternoon, four soldiers with the 3rd Infantry Division were killed by a suicide bomber who detonated his taxicab at the roadblock they were manning.
Officers and soldiers have been warned repeatedly about men in pickup trucks and SUVs who drive toward U.S. forces waving a white flag or the stars and stripes, then start shooting machine guns or rocket-propelled grenades.
"We've had vehicles going up and down this road all day, and any one of them could have contained a car bomb," Hughes said after the SUV passed. "You can search for a car bomb and it may still go off."
At the same time, soldiers have been counseled to impress upon locals that the Americans are here to help and that noncombatants will not be harmed.
"These people are ready to give up," Hughes told his men before they took up positions. "They need to know the quicker they give up the fedayeen and the Baath Party, the quicker we can get aid into here. That's what we're here for."
Capt. Chris Hennigan, the battalion's intelligence officer, warned company commanders their men must be on guard against three main forces:
-- Fedayeen, Islamic militants who typically wear black robes and masks. Recently they have donned civilian garb before going into battle, but they can be identified by a distinctive tattoo: a heart with wings and feet and an F in the middle.
-- Special Republican Guard, Hussein's most trusted unit, which sent advisers and officers to Najaf to help coordinate the city's defense and the Iraqi counterattacks. Members typically wear uniforms with a red triangle on the sleeve or over the breast, and U.S. commanders hope to catch and kill them as they try to escape the besieged city.
-- Al-Qud, local militiamen who probably still number in the thousands inside the city. They wear a hodgepodge of uniforms or civilian clothing. Captured Al-Qud have told U.S. commanders here that many are fighting only because the fedayeen and the ruling Baath Party have threatened to kill their families if they don't.
Maj. Jim Crider, No Slack's operations officer, and his staff planned Saturday's advance on camp stools or knees, bent over a table made from cases of water and spread with maps marked "Secret."
The battalion is responsible for a swath of land about 3 miles wide and 10 miles deep. A dozen scouts went ahead of Charlie Company, which was supposed to dig out any enemy hunkered between the supply route and No Slack's main staging area outside Najaf, a city of about 580,000 people in south-central Iraq.
Kiowa scout helicopters whizzed overhead, and mortar platoons tracked the soldiers' progress by radio, ready to launch salvos in their support. Four hours after C Company left, its commander, Capt. Matt Konz, called Hughes to say that the chemical suits his troops were wearing -- called MOPP gear -- had tired many of his men out, and one suffered from heat exhaustion.
Night had arrived, and with it cool weather, but Konz said his company probably would not be in its attack position until shortly before daybreak. The 101st Airborne has standing orders to wear the suits as they advance. "These MOPP suits are kicking our a--," Konz called in.
Hughes, meanwhile, who was setting up operations several miles away, warned him he may be besieged by curious locals as the company gets closer to towns around Najaf.
"Be pleasant, but keep them at arm's length," he said over the radio.
Unlike the armored 3rd Infantry Division, the 101st Airborne has no vehicle heavier than a Humvee or troop truck and is vulnerable to RPGs and car bombs.
Soldiers from the battalion searched several vehicles, including two donkey carts, that passed their encampment Saturday.
For the soldiers, Saturday's moves meant they may finally see combat, although the 2nd Battalion has been under the constant threat of attack since its troops first arrived in Iraq on Tuesday, and firefights have raged nearby.
Much of the battalion arrived by convoy, a grueling, 60-hour trip through both driving rain and dust storms. The rest arrived Friday afternoon via helicopter from Kuwait.
"We're extremely impatient. We've been driving around, not going nowhere," said Pvt. 2nd Class Kyle Guzman as he and another soldier with night-vision goggles guarded their perimeter Saturday night. Tracers could be seen toward town. "When we roll into enemy territory, the adrenaline starts pumping."