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Tuesday, March 25

Skirmish with civilian truck punctuates daybreak on drive to Baghdad

By C. Mark Brinkley | Marine Corp Times

AN NASIRIYAH, Iraq - Two Iraqis in a civilian pickup truck were killed by bursts of heavy machine gun fire here early Tuesday after trying to rush into a Marine artillery encampment despite warnings to stop.

The incident came after a night of sporadic fighting here, more than 60 miles northeast of An Nasiriyah between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Artillery shells streaked across the night sky and the rattle of bullets flying downrange resounded off the desert floor as members of Regimental Combat Team-5 engaged Iraqi infantry forces holed up nearby.

A huge sandstorm settled in over the region just hours after the shooting, blowing like a blizzard and blotting out the midday sun, yet the Marines pushed on, hoping to get within range of an Iraqi armored brigade attempting to block their movement north.

The action is part of the Marines' drive up the Tigris-Eyphrates river valleys with the goal of converging on Baghdad from the east, as the Army approaches from the west.

The truck attack came just after daybreak when a relative calm had settled over the camp of 3rd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, an artillery unit whose base is in Twentynine Palms, Calif.

The truck driver appeared to throw something from the window as he got close to the camp and refused to slow down for the Marines, officers said.

The guards cut loose with heavy machine guns and 40 mm grenade launchers, shattering the windshield and stopping the vehicle and its inhabitants in their tracks.

Blowing dust and harsh desert conditions made for miserable travel as the Marines spent days on the move north after heavy fighting near Basra over the weekend. Vehicle collisions - the result of blowing dust, night driving and huge vehicle convoys - injured many along the way, while others narrowly escaped injuries as supply and ammunition trailers rolled over in the dark, tires blew out and engines failed.

"Tensions are high," said Capt. Ross Monta, 30, commanding officer of Battery M, 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines. Monta, who is from Slickville, Pa., said, "No oneís getting enough rest. But, every 10 minutes, you hear people laughing and joking, so morale isnít so bad."