© St. Petersburg Times, published April 3, 2003
NAJAF, Iraq -- The sun was still gripping the western sky when Col. Ben Hodges, commander of the 101st Airborne Division's 1st Brigade, checked on his troops after a long day of search and destroy.
He had just left one battalion and was driving to another when his small convoy came abreast of three camouflaged trucks loaded with ammunition.
Men on the trucks started shooting, wounding two soldiers in a Humvee behind him. Hodges and his crew returned fire, then called in Apache attack helicopters.
Within minutes, thick, black smoke curled toward the sky from where the trucks had been.
Wednesday marked the third day of allied forces blasting Iraqi military targets in this holy Muslim city. They incinerated artillery, trucks and the Baath Party headquarters from the sky. U.S. infantrymen worked the dusty streets, hunting enemy fighters and promising to protect local citizens.
In most cases, U.S. forces succeeded in finding weapons caches, armored vehicles and Fedayeen Saddam fighters from the air before ground troops stumbled upon them.
Wednesday night, Hodges' 1st Brigade was moving through town from the south. The Airborne's 2nd Brigade was fighting through suburbs to the north. They were expected to meet somewhere in the middle today or Friday.
"I think we have to walk every street, and people have to tell those soldiers there's guys in that house ... and we have to kill them," Brig. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley, of Woodstock, Va., the operations chief for the 101st Airborne, said as he toured battle positions Wednesday.
Najaf, like most of southern Iraq, is populated by Shiite Muslims.
Saddam Hussein is a Sunni Muslim, as are most members of Iraq's ruling class, and he has persecuted the Shiites for years.
City officials fled for Baghdad when the war started, residents said.
American troops hope to leave a functional city behind, but ask: Who will take their place?
Lt. Col. Chris Hughes, commander of the Airborne's 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry, tried to meet with three leading clerics Wednesday morning, including the imam at the Mosque of Ali.
The cemetery at the gold-domed mosque holds the tomb of Ali, son-in-law of prophet Mohammed, and is among the holiest places in Islam.
Hughes led a force of two tanks, five gun trucks and about 130 soldiers through the narrow streets just after dawn. The show of force was designed to persuade locals and the imam, who had been under house arrest, that they are safe from Hussein's henchmen.
Hughes sent three emissaries to meet the imam. After two hours of waiting, it was clear the imam was a no show.
They plan to return this morning.
"I just hope he'll communicate with me," Hughes said.
"I want him to tell us what to do. It's his city. We're not here to take over their country, we're here to give their country back to them."
Airborne soldiers encountered small pockets of organized resistance and faced scattered small arms and artillery fire throughout the day and night. Two Scud missiles landed near 2nd Battalion's camp before dawn Wednesday, sending soldiers scrambling for their gas masks.
The second landed less than a half-mile away, and the concussion shook the ground.
A shoulder-fired rocket narrowly missed a Kiowa helicopter in the morning.
Helicopters blasted a convoy of artillery and tracked vehicles and radar trucks trying to flee to the north.
In Hodges' afternoon convoy, one soldier was shot in the leg and the arm. A second was struck in the shoulder as they left 2nd Battalion's headquarters in an abandoned school.
Both young men were treated at the 2nd Battalion aid station, then moved to the rear in good condition.
As of Wednesday, one Airborne soldier had been killed in combat. He was a member of the 2nd Brigade who was shot while fighting north of the city.
"The scary part is that it's been so easy getting in here, we may be getting relaxed," said Cpl. Eric Galllup of Streater, Ill., of B Company, 2nd Battalion.
Two British Tornados dropped 6,000 pounds of bombs on the Baath Party headquarters in the city center Wednesday morning, sending a column of black smoke into the sky.
A-10 Warthog jets dropped bombs on a convoy of artillery, armored personnel carriers and radar trucks trying to leave the city.
The Warthogs then let loose with their 30mm cannons, firing so many high-explosive rounds so fast that the sound of each shot merged with the heavy pop of the next one.
As night fell Wednesday, 2nd Battalion's C Company was several miles from the compound and made camp in a former carnival grounds, in an area rife with enemy activity in recent days.
In a radio call late Wednesday night, Hughes warned the company commander, Capt. Matt Konz, that his 130 troops were near some of the day's heaviest fighting.
Their camp was also near Highway 9, a major northern escape route for Fedayeen Saddam fighters and Baath Party leaders. Hughes ordered Konz to attack if he saw any.
With the other companies scheduled to hit the streets early this morning, C Company was in a perfect place.
"Cover route 9, and cover the route that you came in on," Hughes told Konz. "Especially as we do our movement in the morning, we may push some people your way."