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
"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
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
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
"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
"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