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Iraq Journals

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Sunday, April 6

U.S. forces circle Baghdad

By Sean D. Naylor, Matthew Cox | Army Times

WEST OF BAGHDAD, Iraq - U.S. forces completed the encirclement of Baghdad on Sunday as elements of the 3rd Infantry Division moved northwest of the city to cut the last avenue of escape from the Iraqi capital.

To the southeast, Marines took control of the corridor leading to the city from Salman Pak, 20 miles away, U.S. military officials said. The Marines, using an intense artillery barrage, laid waste what military officials said was a training camp for foreign terrorists there.

Meanwhile, 65 miles south in Karbala, the scene of intense street fighting Saturday, soldiers patrolled the streets Sunday with almost no opposition. By nightfall, soldiers encamped in a walled school compound were surrounded by crowds of clapping and cheering Iraqi civilians.

The operation to seal off Baghdad was not without cost. An Iraqi force ambushed a column from the 3rd Infantry's 3rd Brigade. One soldier was killed and another wounded when a rocket-propelled grenade slammed into their armored personnel carrier, according to Lt. Col. Terry Ferrell, commander of the 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment.

Iraqi units also conducted sporadic but ineffective attacks on Ferrell's squadron, situated along the main access route into the city from the west. The squadron's A Troop (Apache Troop) came under fire early in the morning, and artillery rounds fired from central Baghdad landed about 400 yards from the squadron tactical command post around midday. There were no U.S. casualties in either episode.

Sunday morning, before the 3rd Brigade column unit was ambushed, the mood had been decidedly relaxed. As the 3rd Brigade convoy - hundreds of vehicles - drove through the 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry positions, the brigade's relatively fresh soldiers stared wide-eyed at the burned-out Iraqi tanks and charred bodies along what one officer called ``Apache Troop's Highway of Death.''

Watching the 3rd Brigade soldiers pass by was 2nd Lt. Luke Devlin, the leader of Apache Troop's 2nd Platoon, which was in the middle of the Friday battle that destroyed a dozen Iraqi tanks.

Devlin, 22, of Brockton, Mass., was sitting on the side of his Abrams tank waiting for treatment for his feet, which had swelled from standing in his turret 20 hours a day for the previous four days. He was already on his second tank of the war. His first was lost when a bridge collapsed under it during an ambush in Faysaliyah on March 24.

As she passed, a soldier driving a truck called out, ``How many did you kill?'' Devlin thought for a moment, then held up six fingers. The soldier flashed a smile at him, and drove on.

``It feels like it's the beginning of the end,'' Devlin said. ``There's still a threat, but it's not as big as it was.''

U.S. soldiers weren't the only ones to register the reduced tension on the western outskirts of the capital. There were more Iraqi civilians lining the roads than in previous days, watching the U.S. convoys. One man took his shirt off and swung it around as he jumped up and down to welcome the U.S. forces. Some young Iraqi men even felt comfortable enough to kick a ball around on a soccer field, their impromptu game taking place less than 100 yards from the body of a Republican Guard soldier.

In Karbala, what a difference a day made.

Saturday when American troops moved into town, they spent eight hours in a series of running gun battles.

Sunday, civilians crowded onto street corners, necks craned for a glimpse of American soldiers patrolling their streets.

One teenage Iraqi girl smiled and described her feelings in broken English: ``Yes. Good. Help us. We love you.''

But as warm as the reception seemed, soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division and the 1st Armored Division, wary of another attack, spent most of their time telling Iraqis to stay back as they searched schools and other buildings.

``I feel so bad for the kids in this country,'' said Sgt. Thomas Slaton, a 32-year-old Dover, Del., native and forward observer for B Company. ``A lot of these kids that are 5 and 6 years old have already seen stuff that you shouldn't have to look at even if you live to be a thousand.''