AN NASIRIYAH, Iraq - What looked to be a benign ride into this city to quietly secure its major bridges turned into a firefight yesterday as Iraqi tanks, soldiers and secret police darted through the streets, turning their mortars, artillery cannons, rockets and rifles on advancing Marines.
The Americans managed to gain control of the bridges but not without significant casualties. Lt. Gen. John Abizaid of U.S. Central Command said up to nine Marines died and dozens were wounded before the Americans prevailed.
The tanks of Task Force Tarawa's light armor reconnaissance unit crept forward 100 yards at a time against pockets of Iraqi soldiers and secret police, nicknamed the "black pajamas" for their attire. The battle continued throughout the afternoon. The Marine artillery unit, attempting to provide cover fire for the tanks, spent frustrated hours unable to shoot into the city for fear of hitting fellow Marines.
The artillery unit's forward observer approached the city with the infantry and reported back to the Marines at the unit's 18 cannons several miles south. His radio call name is Mustang, and he shouted grid coordinates all day at the top of his voice.
"Every time we move one klick [kilometer], tanks keep popping up," Mustang shouted over the radio to the command center.
The battle began shortly after dawn yesterday when the infantry unit, whose code name is Timber Wolf, approached the southern edge of the city. Several miles south, Col. Glenn Starnes, commanding officer of the artillery battalion, listened on a radio. Minutes before 7 a.m., he shouted, "Timber Wolf is taking fire."
But the cannons were caught off guard, scrambling into position in lines of six in the sand. Iraqi mortar fire sounded in the distance, and the colonel winced and cursed. Twenty-three minutes later, the first battery reported itself ready to fire, or, in the language of battle, "fully in the fight."
Radar detected the location of the mortar fire, and the cannons shot back, but with no Marines yet present in the city to observe, it was impossible to tell what was hit. Mortar, while difficult to fire accurately, can be a difficult weapon to counterattack, especially in a city, where the shooter can drag it back into a home and shut the door in seconds.
"You've got to remember," Maj. Phillip Boggs said, "you can hide a mortar in nothing."
The command center's code name is Nightmare. On its maps, it appeared that besides mortar, up to four tanks were shooting from behind a building.
"Waste it," an officer said under his breath. But that would have been too dangerous with so little information about the target. There is a line that appears on no map, between what an artillery unit believes it can safely do and what the ground troops fear falling on their heads, and with every "denied" spoken over the artillery radios, curses followed.
"Let's not get gun-happy here," Boggs cautioned the officers under the tarp that was the command center, quickly heating under the midmorning sun. "We are running amok. We're suppressing him, probably, but we're not killing him."
Reports surfaced of a platoon-sized group of 30 or 40 black pajamas and smaller squads of soldiers apparently from the 11th Iraqi Infantry Division. The leadership of the division reportedly surrendered to Army units the day before, but Marines approaching the city found machine-gun nests in outlying dwellings, Starnes said.
They also found four American soldiers injured in a ditch and called in an evacuation team. The soldiers were part of a group of about 20 that made a wrong turn in the dark before dawn, intending to skirt the city, only to be ambushed, Starnes said.
There was a puzzle. The Iraqi mortar and artillery fire missed by such large distances that the Marines wondered about another motivation behind the rounds. "I'm afraid he's trying to unmask me," Starnes said, worrying that his return fire could give away his position. "I'm afraid he's trying to find out where we're at." But Iraqis are not believed to have the radar for that ploy. Another officer, simply guessing, suggested they might be firing on civilians.
"It would be really nice to have some forward observer out there to tell us 'left' or 'right' or whatever, and what we hit," said Lt. Michael Slawsky.
After being pinned down most of the morning, the infantry unit and the artillery forward observer advanced shortly before noon, meeting machine-gun fire. An Nasiriyah straddles the Euphrates River, and its bridges are crucial to troops behind Task Force Tarawa heading farther north, toward Baghdad. Army units passing quickly through the city Saturday encountered little resistance, leaving the Marines little clue of what was in store.
By afternoon, Timber Wolf, the infantry unit, had captured the bridges and advanced north of the city. The artillery batteries, finally granted permission to fire, lobbed rounds of powerful explosives at the black circles that had been on their laminated maps for hours.
"The bridge is considered secured," Boggs said when the second of the two was captured.
"It is," Starnes replied, "but I wouldn't want to drive on it."
Then the artillery battalion received notice that it would accept the injured and perhaps dead Marines from the fight in An Nasiriyah. Medical trucks and doctors hurried to the square of desert, past the ring of perimeter guards.
The fight did not let up. Cobra helicopters flew low, barely above the oversized balloons regularly launched by an artillery unit to test the wind. More than a dozen Marines shouted orders and scribbled down coordinates, hunched over lunchbox-sized portable telephones, often struggling to be heard above the din.
The phone boxes go silent for no apparent reason, all the time. Officers wiggled the cables or clicked the button on the handset, or picked up the box and slammed it up and down on the table until it worked again.