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April 7, 2003

(AP Photo)
Marines Battle for Bridge, Enter Baghdad
Under Cover of Machine-Gun Fire Marines Surge Across Shattered Into Baghdad

The Associated Press

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BAGHDAD, Iraq April 7

Under cover of rattling machine-gun fire, Marines grabbed planks, poles and twisted rails Monday and surged across a shattered bridge over a Tigris River tributary into Baghdad.

"Go! Go! Build that bridge!" an officer screamed, patting the troops as they ran under thundering fire to get more scrap to close a six-foot hole the Iraqis had blown in the span.

Monday's drive into Baghdad by the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines marked the Marines' entry into the Iraqi capital, opening the way for thousands more to move in from the southeast. The Army's 3rd Infantry Division was marching in from the southwest.

By Monday afternoon, tanks and amphibious assault vehicles stood in miles-long lines at two bridges, waiting to float into Baghdad on heavy military rafts or cross on jerry-rigged bridges.

Bulldozers ferried over hours before dug into the earth to level a route for the armored vehicles into Baghdad.

The dramatic entry on foot by the 3rd Battalion was forced by Iraqi-laid explosives that blew open the bridge and another one about 3 1/2 miles to the east trying to block the Marines where Iraqi rockets and Kalashnikovs had failed.

The entry came one hour after the battalion, trained at Camp Pendleton, Calif., suffered its heaviest loss of a skirmish-heavy two-week drive into Baghdad.

Two Marines died and two were wounded in an artillery assault on their armored amphibious assault vehicle an "amtrak," designed to float in 12-foot high waves but that in Iraq has seen its heaviest use inland.

The Marines had been guarding the American-held south bank of the reed-lined Tigris tributary.

As American artillery whistled overhead and slammed into Iraqi targets on the far bank, a shell tore into the top of the green, metal amtrak.

The impact peeled back the steel like paper, and blew the Marines out. Fellow Marines gathered the dead, treated the wounded, and collected bulletin boards, photos and scrawled notes.

"Take care of it," a gunnery sergeant said, passing down a cardboard box scrawled in markers. "That's something for the families."

The assault on the bridge left the Marines grimfaced. Before, they had spoken of nothing but taking Baghdad seeing that as the first step to the trip home.

As it was, the entry came with them mourning newly dead friends and no elation.

The Marines had been planning the infantry assault since Sunday night, Battalion commander Lt. Col. B.P. McCoy said.

The Marines needed bridges that could support 70 tons to get their tanks and amtraks across.

The broken bridge across the tributary could support only infantry but infantry would be enough to secure the other side for Army and Marine engineers to work on the makeshift spans.

Entry into Baghdad "means we can get at 'em," he said. "They can't hide behind a river anymore," McCoy said.

Two companies of the 3rd Battalion rattled across on foot, led by those whose colleagues had died in the amtrak.

They ran past a dead Iraqi sprawled across the bridge, a bullet hole in his head, and stormed across a mound of debris they had laid down over the gap. "You can run. It'll hold," a Marine posted at the gap shouted at each passing comrade.

Smoke, flames and Iraqi automatic weapons fire greeted them on the other side. Corpses of more Iraqi men lay on the route, bodies slumped over steering wheels or out the doors of bullet-riddled vehicles.

Marines moved quickly to secure hundreds of walled homes and graceful date palm groves around the bridge.

They were on alert for more of what have been repeated suicide attacks against U.S. forces.

The few pedestrians and vehicles received at least two warning shots and those that kept coming were hit with a volley of American automatic weapons fire until they stopped.

"After you give the final warning shot, shoot them dead," an officer instructed.

An old man, disoriented and alone, kept faltering forward with his cane after three warning shots. Finally, U.S. weapons burst and he fell dead.

A Marine machine gunner at the front lines lay sprawled behind his tripod, left foot jiggling as he watched the road.

Two vehicles approached slowly, a red van and an orange-and-white taxi. They didn't stop. The Marines fired, their bullets sending sprays of powdered glass and smoke through the windshields, until the vehicles rolled to a slow halt. A man rolled out of the driver's door of the taxi. He crawled. Marines kept shooting until he stopped.

By afternoon, the vehicles still sat in the no man's land of as-yet-unsecured territory. The Marines would find out later whether the occupants had been attackers or confused civilians.

Calm returned. Young men ventured out and were frisked before being allowed to move on. Old men came out of their courtyards, drawn to the site of bulldozers leveling the banks of the 65-yard-wide tributary for the rafts and tanks.

Marines reassembled, crunching through broken glass and slogging back across the bridge to regroup as a battalion. They passed a mosaic at the foot of the bridge that showed a triumphant, young Saddam Hussein on a white horse, Iraqi soldiers fording rivers and cheering crowds.

Mortars and machine-gun fire, farther off, exploded around them.

"Yep," said Staff Sgt. Jack Coughlin of Boston, his face caked in dust. "We're in Baghdad."

Late in the afternoon, the first Marine tanks rolled across a ribbon bridge with an American flag tied to it.

Engineers of the 8th Engineer Support Battalion said they had been working since early morning, providing covering fire when their bulldozers took incoming fire from the opposite bank.

"The best sight of the day was those infantry guys going across the bridge so I didn't have to listen to incoming," said Staff Sgt. James Voy Detich, of Hot Springs, Ark.

photo credit and caption:
U.S. Marines of the 3rd batallion, 4th regiment, escort a comrade in shock after an artillery shell hit an Amtrack troop transporter during fighting with Iraqi gunmen, as Marines tried to secure a key bridge leading into Baghdad on the outskirts of the Iraqi capital, Monday, April 7, 2003. Two Marines were killed Monday when their Amtrack troop transporter was hit by an artillery shell at a bridge over a canal on the outskirts of the Iraqi capital, Lt. Col.B.P. McCoy said Monday. (AP Photo/Laurent Rebours)

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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