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Thursday, April 3

U.S. cavalry regiment closes on Baghdad

By Sean D. Naylor | Army Times

WEST OF BAGHDAD, Iraq - The first shout was more a cautionary ``heads-up'' than a warning.

``Two vehicles approaching!''

As the vehicles continued racing toward the roadblock that U.S. soldiers had set up on an Iraqi freeway, the shouts grew more urgent.

``Two army jeeps!''

Then came the order to open fire, as the vehicles sped to within about 300 yards of the forward command post.

``Light `em up!''

The two vehicles skidded to a halt as they ran into a wall of automatic weapons fire from M3 Bradley fighting vehicles, M113 armored personnel carriers and M-16 rifles.

The firing lasted for a long minute. There was no sign of movement from the two vehicles, and no return fire. A Bradley crew moved forward to investigate. They saw no bodies, only two uniformed men running away through the fields that lined the freeway. The crew fired the Bradley's 7.62 mm machine gun at the men, killing one. The other escaped.

``They were definitely enemy,'' said the Bradley commander. ``There were berets on the ground.''

The incident at the freeway was one of many encounters Thursday between the 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized) and Iraqi forces. By nightfall, troops with the division's 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment had settled into positions about six miles west of Baghdad after killing an estimated 150 to 300 Iraqi troops, destroying more than 20 trucks and capturing a battery of three 155 mm howitzers.

As the cavalry unit advanced on Baghdad from the southwest, marines from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force raced toward the capital city from the southeast, meeting almost no resistance.

Elements of the 3rd Infantry fought for control of Saddam Hussein International Airport.

The infantry's three-pronged assault, aided by air support, also cut off the city from main routes to the south. Commanders estimated that at least 2,000 Iraqi troops were killed. One U.S. soldier was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade.

Repelling ambushes

In another development, Army officials said a Black Hawk helicopter that crashed on Wednesday apparently had been flying too low over a lake to the west of Baghdad and had clipped a sand dune.

The 3rd Squadron's mission was to secure the 3rd Infantry's western flank as the division began its assault on the suburbs of Baghdad. During its 40-mile march from northwest of Karbala, the squadron fought its way through several ambushes and crossed to the eastern bank of the Euphrates River for the second time since the war began.

Maj. Gen. Buford Blount, the 3rd Infantry's commanding general, told his subordinates early Thursday that the Iraqi military had something up its sleeve, ``or he's on his back and we're in his knickers.'' Blount said the latter scenario was more likely.

At one point Thursday, an officer with the 155 mm Paladin artillery battery attached to the squadron ordered his troops to unpack their AT-4 shoulder-fired antitank weapons to defend against a possible attack by Iraqi tanks.

Asked how often his soldiers trained with the AT-4s, he paused.

``Never,'' he answered. ``Doesn't make you feel confident, does it?''

The squadron moved out at 7 a.m. As it drove toward the Euphrates, six American Multiple Launch Rocket System rockets whooshed overhead, breaking the sound barrier with a bang.

Up ahead, U.S. soldiers were running into Iraqi resistance.

``One technical vehicle... destroyed it... one gunshot wound to the leg,'' came the chatter over the radio.

Another report told of a civilian car with occupants firing out the windows. U.S. soldiers returned fire with a .50 cal machine gun, killing one occupant and wounding another.

By 12:30 p.m., the convoy was approaching the river and the desert had given way to lush, irrigated green fields and groves of palm trees. But signs of war were everywhere.

Communications wires hung from poles planted in roadside trenches. Charred military trucks - one with its wheels still smoking - lined the road.

The Bradley carrying squadron commander Lt. Col. Terry Ferrell passed one truck with ``Unleash Hell'' stenciled on its side and an American tank with ``Crashin' Thru `Em'' written on the barrel.

At 12:50 p.m. Ferrell's Bradley drove onto the bridge spanning the 600-foot wide Euphrates. One lane of the bridge was cratered. An Iraqi military installation on the east side of the bridge had been destroyed, leaving only shells of buildings. An American Abrams tank stood nearby flying the ``Jolly Roger.''

As Ferrell and Blount conferred on their next move, the seemingly endless convoy of heavy armor creaked and clanked past. The road was lined with armored vehicles providing security. Some of the troops inside, baking in the 90-degree heat, took off their helmets, despite the occasional pop of artillery ahead.

Evidence of war

The detritus of war was everywhere. Unexploded artillery shells lay in the paddy fields. The spilled contents of ammunition boxes glinted in the sun. Destroyed Iraqi armored vehicles littered the roadside. The hulls of several blackened armored personnel carriers used by the Iraqis bore silent testimony to the effectiveness of precision-guided munitions.

The personnel carriers were missing their turrets, which sat several yards away. The Iraqis had dug the vehicles in and surrounded them with sand berms, but the effort hadn't done much to help them survive. Nothing surrounding the vehicles appeared to have been touched.

One dead crewman apparently had jumped out of the vehicle before it was hit, only to be machine-gunned. He seemed to be sleeping.

The driver of a small civilian truck lay near his destroyed vehicle, a grimace on his face and his arms raised as if to ward off a blow. A third body, dressed in olive drab shirt, pants and sweater, was already bloating in the afternoon sun.

During one early-afternoon pause, 7th Cavalry troops watched as a small number of Iraqi prisoners of war were strip-searched for weapons. An American recovery vehicle drove up, laden with captured AK-style assault rifles. A squad of soldiers took turns grabbing rifles and hurling them end over end into the reeds along the road. Some of the watching cavalrymen almost wept with frustration to see the venerable weapons thrown away.

The advance moved through affluent farmland and suburbs. Fields and orchards replaced the flat, sandy wasteland. As squadron members moved closer to the front, the other soldiers they passed looked more apprehensive, their automatic weapons pointing outwards from their vehicle hatches.

Many hamlets appeared deserted. But small knots of civilians gathered in other towns. Some young men waved or gave the thumbs-up sign. Others stood and stared sullenly. A small boy leaned out of a car window to give the V for victory sign. A young woman blew kisses to the soldiers, while another woman reproached her.

The putrid smell of refuse and raw sewage hung in the air.

At 3:41 p.m., Ferrell's command vehicles pulled onto Highway 1. Five minutes later, his soldiers were in combat, firing at Iraqi foot soldiers who jumped from civilian vehicles and shot at the U.S. armored vehicles as they roared past.

Capt. Bill Brown, scanning for targets out of the rear hatch of a Bradley, shoved a reporter beside him out of the way and opened fire on Iraqi troops with measured bursts from his M-16. Suddenly the turret swiveled and the Bradley's main gun erupted with a ``BANG! BANG! BANG!'' as Ferrell fired at Iraqis about 800 yards away.

The convoy moved ahead for a few more minutes before Brown spotted a civilian vehicle behaving oddly - driving past the convoy, then driving back, before letting out several young men.

``They're getting out!'' he yelled. ``Dismounts!''

The convoy opened fire, killing more Iraqis without pausing in its steady movement toward the northwest.

And so it went for another two hours, climaxing with the almost-suicidal assault by the two jeeps. As Ferrell, Brown and the dozen other soldiers in the advanced command post settled in, machine gun and artillery fire echoed all around them as a fierce battle raged for control of the airport.

(Contributing: Steven Komarow, USA TODAY)