Front line blurring for Marines

A Marine armored convoy pushes toward Baghdad, Iraq, during the war. Though the war is won, some military experts continue to argue that U.S. forces in Iraq were inadequate, and ground forces were put at great risk.
A Marine armored convoy pushes toward Baghdad, Iraq, during the war. Though the war is won, some military experts continue to argue that U.S. forces in Iraq were inadequate, and ground forces were put at great risk. (Sun photo by John Makely)
WITH THE U.S. MARINES, Iraq - The Marines were told to push north at the highest possible speed toward Baghdad until making contact with the enemy.

They made contact, but the enemy had changed. The enemy the Marines encountered in the past 48 hours was not the Iraqi heavy armor, artillery and large formations of troops they expected. Instead, they met resistance from irregulars dressed as civilians and driving civilian vehicles.

Back at headquarters, the commanders were watching the changing battlefield. It didn't matter, they said. "We'll fight this on our terms," U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks said yesterday.

Along a bleak stretch of highway in southern Iraq, a Marine reconnaissance team had battled Sunday and early yesterday with "technicals" - military-speak for civilian pickup trucks with machine guns or other weaponry mounted on the back.

They did not stop the Marines, who defeated the attack and destroyed several of the vehicles. Those events, however, have forced American forces to be more vigilant and to expect the worst of every person, car and truck. The front lines have disappeared and been replaced by the potential for danger on every road and in every encounter with Iraqis.

Yesterday, as members of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment pushed along the highway, the remnants of the civilian vehicles lay smoldering. A pickup with a large-caliber machine gun on the back had been stopped in its tracks - its hazard lights still flashing.

The Iraqi military was thought to have been defending the road but apparently fled before U.S. troops arrived, Marines said. Whatever Iraqi soldiers had been here, they had clearly moved on in a hurry. They left behind mortars, piles of helmets and boxes of ammunition.

Also still in the area were the irregulars bent on disrupting the Marines' advance north.

The skirmish underscored a potentially dangerous development in the war: The most effective resistance has been led by Saddam Hussein's paramilitary force, the fedayeen. In addition to harrying the Americans, these guerrillas, believed to be under the command of Hussein's son Odai, are also seeking to prevent regular Iraqi army units from surrendering.

"The soldiers know there is a place for them in Iraq after the war," said 1st Lt. Alex W. D'Amico of Bethesda, executive officer of Marines India Co., 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment. "These operators who are driving SUVs and pickup trucks know they don't have a future after the end of this regime."

But the Marines were heartened by the fact that the Iraqi military had apparently fled so quickly - at least from this location.

"Any army that wants to fight another day doesn't leave its mortars behind," D'Amico said.

An enemy disguised in civilian clothing, however, makes the Marines' job more difficult.

That became clear yesterday when the Marines spotted four men in a red pickup driving on the shoulder of the road and carrying something suspicious in the truck bed.

A platoon of Marines stormed out of the back of an armored vehicle and surrounded the truck. The driver and passengers quickly raised their arms. One passenger waved a large white flag.

Walking through the scrub along the side of the road, the Marines approached the four men. The men were asked to sit down and then lie down on their back. Their head scarves were removed. Several other platoons began searching the area for other Iraqis.

When the Marines investigated further, however, they discovered that the suspicious cargo was not a machine gun or grenade launcher but a dead cow.

The suspicious men were farmers, who were promptly released. Driving away in the pickup, two of the passengers stood in the back waving the white flag.

That illustrated the challenge U.S. troops face: Who is friend? Who is foe? What is the intent of the driver of an approaching car? Distinctions between friend and foe can no longer be based on uniform and will no doubt cause problems for many innocent civilians such as these farmers.

None of the Marines seemed surprised that the war had taken on this twist.

Said D'Amico: "We never expected Saddam to fight fair."

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