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Iraq Journals

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Saturday, April 5

101st Airborne faces urban warfare in Karbala

By Matthew Cox | Army Times

KARBALA, Iraq - While others wonder whether they will have to battle in the streets of Baghdad, soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division fought block by block here Saturday.

At a little after noon, 2nd Lt. Joe Thomas of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) began pushing his search teams into a water treatment plant.

In the next eight hours, soldiers from his Bravo Company, along with the 1st Armored Division's Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 41st Infantry Regiment, fought a guerrilla force for control of a few square blocks of this city of 400,000 about 60 miles southwest of Baghdad.

``Hey, watch that building over there. I got a team ready to enter,'' shouted the 31-year-old Colorado Springs, Col., native.

The two-mile walk from a nearby landing zone in 98-degree heat already was taking its toll on the soldiers of the 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment. Water was low. One soldier vomited uncontrollably as he prepared to enter a building.

Explosions rocked the ground.

``Be advised, we have incoming mortars into this compound. You need to pick up the pace when you move across open areas,'' Thomas barked into his radio handset.

The three buildings of the treatment plant were quickly cleared, but Bravo Company's fight to control the streets continues.

The 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized) has enjoyed great success in its lightning drive to the outskirts of Baghdad. And it captured worldwide attention when it ran a column of tanks through downtown Baghdad.

But the mechanized division has been moving so fast that its soldiers had little time to clear militia such as the Saddam Fedayeen from cities in its wake.

By day's end, the Fedayeen had destroyed one of the 41st's 10 Bradley fighting vehicles with a volley of rocket-propelled grenades. In the past, Iraqis have fired single rounds of rocket fire at the armored vehicles, only to face withering return fire. Now they fire in volleys, increasing their odds of substantial damage.

The Iraqi fighters also shot a soldier in his side. The soldier, whose name was not released, was evacuated and expected to recover.

Three hours into the fight, Alpha and Bravo companies moved about 700 yards to the north of the water treatment plant to a neighborhood strewn with the traces of war - shattered glass windows, a fly-covered dead horse. The stench of garbage and burning vehicles was heavy in the air.

The soldiers had been taking heavy machine gun and rocket grenade fire from the neighborhood.

As first and second platoons of Bravo Company moved cautiously down the streets, machine gun fire from a nearby rooftop pinned them down.

``We have made contact and we're receiving fire!'' a radio operator shouted into his handset. He listened to his radio for a moment and then shouted back: ``Negative, we cannot move one block farther because we are receiving fire from the rear.''

Soldiers took out the machine gun position with a blast from an AT-4 shoulder-fired rocket.

Soon, about 300 terrified residents poured out of their homes in search of help. Fathers in T-shirts and sweat pants and mothers in their billowing black abayas clutched their screaming children. Soldiers waved the panicked civilians to a safe area. The civilians quickly obeyed, moving past and flashing the ``V'' for victory sign at the soldiers.

The scene had a clear impact on many soldiers.

``That's the bad part. A lot of these people don't have anything to do with this,'' said Sgt. 1st Class Enrique Barragan, 35, of Artesia, Calif. Barragan also fought in the first Gulf war.

The resistance did not surprise Capt. James McGahey, 29, of Brighton, Mich., the Bravo Company commander.

``It's pretty much what I expected, but I didn't think it would be this bad,'' he said. ``The enemy is holding their own.''

He estimated that his unit had killed 60 enemy soldiers. He was pleased to see that months of training paid off, evident in the way soldiers and their leaders were able to adapt to the mission that they had little time to plan for.

``This was just guys cross-talking and coming together and getting to the next block,'' McGahey said.

By nightfall the exhausted soldiers holed up in a school complex where they found a cache of weapons, including AK-47s and machine gun ammunition.

A water truck made its way to the school. Most of the exhausted, sweat-soaked soldiers ran to meet it. As night fell, the shot-up Bradley, a burned-out hulk, continued to smolder.

And the company of about 120 men set up security in the two- and three-story buildings inside the walled compound, waiting for tomorrow.