An ambush by Iraqis tests mettle of Marines


WITH THE U.S. MARINES IN CENTRAL IRAQ - When the attack came yesterday, the day was still young enough that the morning haze had not yet burned out of the sky. It was a little after 7 a.m., and the desert was almost pretty.

A long line of tanks, armored assault vehicles and Humvees of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines were driving in convoy on a partially paved highway near the city of Ad Diwaniyah and heading north, always north, in the direction of Baghdad. The first sounds of trouble weren't especially loud.

Sounded like rocks striking the vehicles, Lance Cpl. Marcco Ware would say later.

Iraqis hidden behind a sand berm ambushed them, firing mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikovs. A Marine was killed when his vehicle was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade; a second Marine was seriously wounded.

"We started taking hits," Ware said. "We all realized we were taking fire."

The convoy stopped, the Marines drove the armored vehicles up to the berm, all possible firepower was unleashed, the vehicles' ramps went down, the Marines threw themselves on the slope of the berm, they began firing - the crackle of M-16s, the return fire of the Iraqis for a few moments, more fire from the M-16s.

Within 15 minutes the surviving Iraqis began raising their hands. About 30 Iraqis surrendered; 35 to 40 others were dead, and their bodies littered a steep-sided ditch just below their firing position.

"They put up a fight for a minute or two and then they started surrendering," said Lance Cpl. Kris Spencer of Fort Scott, Kan.

Important road

The Iraqi military had clearly expected this road would be important to defend. The Iraqis had been well-fortified behind the sand berm beside the road. There were small trenches, piles of sandbags arranged to form walls and lookouts.

The Iraqis who survived were a mix of conscripts and regular army who appeared to be of middle age or older. All of them carried gas masks - raising new concerns among the Marines about Iraq's capacity to use chemical or biological weapons.

According to the Marines, some of the conscripts said they had been forced into service by Iraqi army officers who came to their homes and threatened to kill their families if they did not join the fight.

The Marines unleashed an artillery barrage aimed at the desert beyond the roadside berm to chase down anyone who might have fled.

The Marines, day after suffocating day in their armored vehicles, had talked about wanting to "get some." Now they could say they had succeeded - they had bloodied the enemy in a firefight - but there was nothing pretty here.

The Iraqi prisoners stood in a ragged line and looked dazed as Marines searched them and marched them back to the road. One prisoner watched the artillery fire and turned to anyone who would listen and said in broken English, "Some are children."

Nearly all the Iraqi soldiers were dressed in khaki military fatigues but by their sides were plastic grocery bags containing their civilian clothes. Many wore dress shoes or slippers or no shoes at all.

Ammo and chicken

The Iraqis had been waiting for U.S. troops to come. Along with a substantial supply of ammunition, rocket-propelled grenades, rifles and knives, they had teapots and metal trays holding the remnants of a chicken dinner. By one foxhole, the embers of a fire were still visible, as was a half-eaten bread roll.

The Marines continued to encounter threats by technicals - pickups and SUVs mounted with machine guns and other weapons.

The Marines counted the bodies and counted the prisoners. A sandstorm descended, stinging everyone, and then it rained. The convoy stayed right here, in the mud in the desert.

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