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, slapping troops
as they ran under thundering fire, grabbing more scrap to patch a
6-foot hole the Iraqis had blown in the span.
With its repair job and dramatic on-foot push across the Tigris,
the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines became the first Marines to penetrate
the Iraqi capital.
They needed bridges able to support 70 tons to cross with their
tanks and amphibious armored vehicles. The broken bridge could hold
only infantry but infantry would be enough to secure the other side
for Army and Marine engineers to work on the makeshift spans.
The crossing Monday opened the way for thousands more Marines
advancing from the southeast, as the Army's 3rd Infantry Division
marched in from the southwest.
But the long-awaited entry was bittersweet: Just an hour earlier,
the battalion, trained at Camp Pendleton, Calif., suffered its
heaviest loss of the skirmish-heavy two-week drive toward the
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 waves but used mainly inland in Iraq.
The Marines had been guarding the American-held south bank of the
reed-lined Tigris tributary. As U.S. artillery whistled overhead and
slammed into targets on the far bank, an incoming 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
The assault left the Marines grimfaced. Before, they had spoken
of nothing but taking Baghdad seeing that as the first step to the
Entry into Baghdad "means we can get at 'em. They can't hide
behind a river anymore," battalion commander Lt. Col. B.P. McCoy
said, adding that his unit had been planning its infantry assault
since Sunday night.
As it was, crossing into the capital found the battalion mourning
newly dead friends instead of feeling elated.
The battalion had to cross on foot, because Iraqis had blown up
the Tigris bridge and another one about 3 1/2 miles to the east
trying to block the Marines where Iraqi rockets and Kalashnikovs had
Two companies of the 3rd Battalion rattled across, led by those
whose colleagues had died in the amtrak.
They ran past a dead Iraqi sprawled on the bridge, a bullet hole
in his head. They stormed across the mound of debris patching the
6-foot gap. "You can run. It'll hold," a Marine shouted at each
Smoke, flames and Iraqi automatic weapons fire greeted them on
the other side. Corpses of Iraqi men lay on the route, bodies
slumped over steering wheels or out the doors of bullet-riddled
Marines moved quickly to secure hundreds of walled homes and
graceful date palm groves around the bridge all the time alert for
more of what have been repeated suicide attacks against U.S.
The battalion gave the few pedestrians and vehicles it
encountered at least two warning shots. If people and vehicles kept
coming, Marines unleashed a volley of American automatic weapons
"After you give the final warning shot, shoot them dead," an
A Marine machine gunner lay sprawled behind his tripod, left foot
jiggling as he watched the road.
An old man approached, disoriented and alone, faltering forward
with his cane after three warning shots. Finally, U.S. weapons burst
and he fell dead.
Two vehicles ventured slowly, a red van and an orange-and-white
taxi. They didn't stop. Marines fired, 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 a riverside site
where U.S. bulldozers ferried over the Tigris earlier Monday leveled
the banks of the 65-yard-wide tributary.
The ground was being prepared for the Marines' tanks and
amphibious assault vehicles to float into Baghdad on heavy military
rafts or to cross on bridges, once they were ready.
Marines reassembled, crunching through broken glass and slogging
back across the patched bridge to regroup as a battalion.
They passed a mosaic at the foot of the bridge of a triumphant,
young Saddam Hussein on a white horse, Iraqi soldiers fording rivers
and cheering crowds.
Mortars and machine-gun fire 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 on the bridge since early morning, providing covering
fire when their bulldozers took incoming fire from the opposite
"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.
|U.S. tanks pass by the banks of
the Tigris river as they roll into Baghdad, outside Saddam
Hussein's presidential palace, Monday April 7, 2003. Coalition
soldiers took over key buildings Monday, as gunfire and
explosions thundered in many parts of the battered Iraqi
capital. (AP Photo/Jerome
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