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Iraq

Bridge is bloody milestone

By Associated Press
Published April 8, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Under cover of machine-gun fire, Marines grabbed planks, poles and twisted rails Monday and surged across a shattered bridge over a Tigris River tributary into Baghdad.

"Go! Go! Build that bridge!" an officer screamed, slapping troops as they ran under thundering fire, grabbing more scrap to patch a 6-foot hole the Iraqis had blown in the span.

With its repair job and dramatic on-foot push across the Tigris, the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines became the first Marines to penetrate the Iraqi capital.

They needed bridges able to support 70 tons to cross with their tanks and amphibious armored vehicles. The broken bridge could hold only infantry - but infantry would be enough to secure the other side so Army and Marine engineers could work on the makeshift spans.

The crossing Monday opened the way for thousands more Marines advancing from the southeast, as the Army's 3rd Infantry Division marched in from the southwest.

But the long-awaited entry was bittersweet: Just an hour earlier, the battalion, trained at Camp Pendleton, Calif., suffered its heaviest loss of the two-week drive toward the capital.

Two Marines died and two were wounded in an artillery assault on their armored amphibious assault vehicle.

The Marines had been guarding the American-held south bank of the reed-lined Tigris tributary. As U.S. artillery rounds whistled overhead, an incoming shell tore into the top of the vehicle.

The impact peeled back the steel like paper and blew the Marines out. Fellow Marines gathered the dead, treated the wounded, and collected bulletin boards, photos and scrawled notes.

"Take care of it," a gunnery sergeant said, passing down a cardboard box scrawled on with markers. "That's something for the families."

The assault left the Marines grim-faced. Before, they had spoken of nothing but taking Baghdad - seeing that as the first step to the trip home.

Entry into Baghdad "means we can get at 'em. They can't hide behind a river anymore," said Lt. Col. B.P. McCoy, battalion commander, adding that his unit had been planning its infantry assault since Sunday night.

The battalion had to cross on foot because Iraqis had blown up the bridge and another one about 31/2 miles to the east.

Two companies of the 3rd Battalion rattled across.

Smoke, flames and Iraqi automatic weapons fire greeted them on the other side. Corpses of Iraqi men lay on the route, bodies slumped over steering wheels or out the doors of bullet-riddled vehicles.

Marines moved quickly to secure hundreds of walled homes and graceful date palm groves around the bridge - all the time alert for another suicide attack.

The battalion gave the few pedestrians and vehicles it encountered at least two warning shots. If people and vehicles kept coming, Marines unleashed a volley of automatic weapons fire.

"After you give the final warning shot, shoot them dead," an officer instructed.

A Marine machine gunner lay sprawled behind his tripod.

An old man approached, disoriented and alone, faltering forward with his cane after three warning shots. Finally, U.S. weapons burst and he fell dead.

Two vehicles ventured slowly, a red van and an orange and white taxi. They didn't stop. Marines fired, bullets sending sprays of powdered glass and smoke through the windshields, until the vehicles rolled to a slow halt. A man rolled out of the driver's door of the taxi. He crawled. Marines kept shooting until he stopped.

By afternoon, the vehicles still sat in the no man's land of as-yet-unsecured territory. The Marines would find out later whether the occupants had been attackers or confused civilians.

Calm returned. Young men ventured out and were frisked before being allowed to move on.

Old men came out of their courtyards, drawn to a riverside site where U.S. bulldozers - ferried over the Tigris earlier Monday - leveled the banks of the 65-yard-wide tributary.

The ground was being prepared for the Marines' tanks and amphibious assault vehicles to float into Baghdad on heavy military rafts or to cross on bridges, once they were ready.

Late in the afternoon, the first Marine tanks rolled across a ribbon bridge with an American flag tied to it.

Engineers of the 8th Engineer Support Battalion said they had been working on the bridge since early morning, providing covering fire when their bulldozers took incoming fire from the opposite bank.

"The best sight of the day was those infantry guys going across the bridge so I didn't have to listen to incoming," said Staff Sgt. James Voy Detich of Hot Springs, Ark.

[Last modified April 8, 2003, 01:31:46]