St. Petersburg Times
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Coordination ends firefight

By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 10, 2003

HILLAH, Iraq -- The three Apache helicopters hovered in the sky, taking turns attacking the concrete building where some 20 enemy fighters had chosen to make their stand.

One would blast away with rockets, or send a Hellfire missile into the smoke, and another Apache would race in behind it, strafing the compound with high explosive 30mm rounds.

It went around like this for half an hour late Wednesday afternoon. Occasionally the Apaches would pull back a few hundred yards and hover insultingly low, waiting for the dust to clear so they could observe their handiwork.

Then they would race back to the smoke, their cannons going brap-brap-brap-brap -- faster than you can say it. The U.S. soldiers watching from below cheered their power each time.

"Aren't you glad you're an American?" said Capt. Michael Avey, 27, the battle captain of the 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry of the 101st Airborne Division.

It had been a quiet day. The three rifle companies of the 2nd Battalion, which calls itself No Slack, had moved out before dawn, hiking into an industrial section of Hillah to look for enemy fighters, secure buildings, and destroy weapons caches.

A strong force of Iraqi army soldiers and Islamic militants from Syria and elsewhere had surprised another Airborne force that approached the city last week, and the 2nd Battalion had been warned to expect as many as 200 determined fighters in town.

From dawn to 3:30 p.m., the Airborne soldiers found plenty of rocket-propelled grenades, small arms ammunition, grenades and uniforms at almost every military complex and school they hit. Smaller caches were stashed around bushes, and they found a loaded RPG leaning against a palm, ready to fire. But they didn't see a single fighter.

"We were having a pretty slow day," said Spc. Nathan Palmer, 24, of Harrisburk, Ark. "We were moving from compound to compound, clearing them, and it took us by surprise."

C Company had holed up for the evening in a cluster of warehouses a few blocks from the battalion headquarters. Palmer was on the roof, pulling guard duty with a heavy machine gun team, when they noticed two men jog in helmets around the corner of a nearby building with AK-47 rifles, "and we started lighting them up," he said.

A white, four-door sedan appeared, and men inside started shooting at the U.S. soldiers above.

"The 240 (machine gun) team and the snipers, they let loose," Palmer said. "They ate 'em up."

When the firefight subsided, one dead and four injured enemy fighters lay on the ground. Palmer and several others loaded the wounded onto a U.S. field ambulance while another group raced to the compound across the street.

They found a weapons cache and a van loaded with ammunition. Capt. Matt Konz, the C Company commander, and his men noticed movement in an adjacent compound, then saw 15 to 20 armed fighters.

The enemy began shooting. The Americans shot back.

The U.S. military excels in what's called the art of combined arms. Simple in concept, it is expensive and complicated to conduct, and requires a commander to coordinate air strikes, artillery and infantry attacks so that one doesn't interfere with -- or endanger -- the other.

The most obvious advantage is that this approach softens up defenses before ground troops move in, cutting the risk of casualties. "I'll drop Bethlehem steel on every target before I risk flesh and bone," said Maj. Pete Rooks, the executive officer of No Slack.

But it also keeps the enemy guessing: They try to figure out how to survive or strike back against one element, then they're attacked by another.

The men holed up in the building across from C Company got it all. After engaging Konz's men and their heavy machine guns and M-4s, the battalion commanders called in the Apaches.

Meanwhile, the field ambulance brought the wounded enemy fighters back to No Slack headquarters, bloodied and naked. One had been shot in the head and was not expected to live. Two others were in serious but stable condition, and a fourth was sufficiently feisty to warrant being handcuffed.

As the Apaches attacked, enemy fighters fired machine guns from below, then let loose with at least two RPGs. "I've had enough of this," Lt. Col. Chris Hughes, the No Slack commander, said over the radio. "I'm calling in CAS" -- close air support.

Hughes gave the compound's map coordinates to the Air Force spotters who travel with his battalion, and 10 minutes later two British Tornadoes screamed overhead. Each dropped a 500-pound bomb on or very near the building, collapsing one side of it.

Smoke filled the sky from the direction of the compound, but still Konz reported more firing. Hughes called in several artillery rounds, then waited. Four men surrendered to Konz.

The compound fell silent.

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