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With the 3rd Infantry
Resistance On Road Is Light
Convoy Faces Only Small Arms

An Iraqi man kisses the cheek of Pvt. Garrett Alvin of Palmdale, Calif., after the man was searched and allowed to pass through an Army checkpoint in Karbala. (David Leeson -- Dallas Morning News Via AP)

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By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 3, 2003; Page A01

NEAR KARBALA, Iraq, April 2 -- Lead elements of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division snaked along Karbala's western edge today and then turned sharply east, crossed the Euphrates River and pointed toward Baghdad with surprisingly little resistance from disintegrating Republican Guard forces on the approaches to the Iraqi capital.

The miles-long column of armored vehicles and supply trucks, whose tip reached to within 30 miles of Baghdad and its sprawling southern suburbs, met only light opposition from small groups of President Saddam Hussein's loyalist militiamen and Republican Guard teams equipped with small arms, commanders said. They said the heavy Iraqi equipment expected to mount the main defense of Baghdad -- battle tanks, artillery, multiple rocket launchers and antitank missiles -- was nowhere to be seen.

"We're moving through light contact with a few ambush positions on the way," said Maj. Roger Shuck, operations officer of the division's 3rd Battalion, 15th Regiment.

U.S. commanders had expected to meet stiff resistance from the Medina Division of the elite Republican Guard. But a relentless pounding in recent days by Air Force planes, including B-52 bombers, rendered at least two of the division's key brigades "combat ineffective," officers said.

"The Air Force has done wonders for us," said Shuck, who had survived a rocket-propelled grenade attack on his M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle south of Karbala two days earlier.

With a brigade serving as a blocking force to the southeast and southwest of Karbala to bottle up any attackers from the rear, other units of M1 Abrams tanks, Bradleys and hundreds of other tracked and wheeled vehicles punched through what the U.S. military has taken to calling the Karbala Gap, a narrow slice of land between the western edge of the city and a large body of water called Lake Razzaza.

Sometimes inching along at a few miles an hour and at other times stalling completely, the convoy moved around to the west of the city, defying expectations that it would take a route east. Then, after reaching the northern end of Karbala, it veered east and drove toward a bridge over the Euphrates at a town called Objective Peach by the 3rd Infantry Division commanders and Musayyib by Iraqis.

Because of the reduction of the Medina Division by relentless U.S. bombing and artillery barrages, U.S. commanders were reviewing their plans today and picking alternative targets and stopping points for their forces. "This has been a very fluid plan based on the fact that we've done well," Shuck said.

By shortly after 6 p.m., the 3rd Division's 1st Brigade was reported by commanders to have crossed the bridge over the Euphrates at Objective Peach, with the long tail of the armored column stretching miles behind.

As the rest of the column pushed through the Karbala Gap, the lights of the city twinkled in the distance to the east. Karbala, a city of 350,000 about 50 miles south of Baghdad, is sacred to the 60 percent of Iraq's 24 million residents who are Shiite Muslims. A traditional destination for Shiite pilgrims from Iraq and the region, Karbala is the burial place of Hussein, a revered Shiite martyr who was the son of Ali, the prophet Muhammad's son-in-law.

At the start of the division's advance, south of Karbala, the U.S. force passed burned-out civilian pickup trucks and four-wheel-drive vehicles, the ride of choice for Iraqi irregulars trying to resist the U.S. drive toward Baghdad. Within a short span, the bodies of five of these fighters, killed when they tried to target Bradleys in recent days, lay by the side of the road. On both sides of the route, numerous fighting positions were dug into the sandy earth, some topped with sandbags.

But farther along, there was little sign of resistance to the invading force. The U.S. armored column passed civilians who waved at the passing tanks, trucks and Humvees, but kept their distance. Children ran out to receive candy thrown to them by the drivers and gunners aboard Bradleys and M113 armored personnel carriers.

On one stretch of road through a wooded area, the scene of small-arms ambushes aimed at the head of the column earlier in the day, the rear of the huge convoy went through without incident as night fell.

Farther north, drivers reported on their radios having seen the impact of a suspected mortar round about 500 yards from the column. Later, rockets from a multiple rocket launcher streaked through the night sky as U.S. gunners used radar to locate the origin of enemy artillery and drop counter-battery fire on it.

Lt. Col. Stephen Twitty, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 15th Regiment, said in an interview Tuesday that the Medina Division had been reduced to 65 percent of its strength by U.S. airstrikes. He said U.S. and British forces flew 3,000 sorties Monday night alone, many of them directed at the Republican Guard divisions arrayed on Baghdad's southern approaches.

Still, Twitty said, he was telling his troops to be prepared for a fight.

"I'm not talking to my soldiers about capitulation" of Republican Guard forces, said the 39-year-old officer from Chesnee, S.C. "They must be prepared to engage the enemy."

But the column at times moved so slowly that soldiers alternately grew frustrated at the glacial pace and worried that they were sitting ducks.

"Black 6, Black 7," 1st Sgt. Chris French radioed to his Bravo Company commander at one point from his slow-moving M113. "Be advised I was passed by a dog on the side."

"Is he a threat?" chimed in one platoon leader.

Driving an M88 recovery vehicle, Pvt. Damon Winneshiek was not amused: "It's all fun and games until a mortar gets dropped on your head," he said.

2003 The Washington Post Company

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