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With the 3rd Infantry
Troops Take Control of Highway in Push North

Soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division take up defensive positions to protect vehicles along Highway 9, just south of the city of Karbala, in the northernmost advance of U.S. forces. (William Branigin -- The Washington Post)

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By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 31, 2003; Page A01

NEAR KARBALA, Iraq, March 30 -- Preceded by punishing airstrikes, Army troops spearheading the U.S. invasion of Iraq pushed north to within several miles of Karbala today, fighting running battles with Iraqi soldiers and militiamen along a key road and calling in artillery barrages to counter mortar attacks.

By day's end, the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade had taken control of a stretch of Highway 9 about 14 miles west of the town of Hilla and 20 miles southwest of the ruins of Babylon. The area is about six miles from the Euphrates River, beyond which lie the southern approaches to Baghdad guarded by the Medina Division of President Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard.

The drive north, in M1 Abrams tanks, M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, Paladin self-propelled howitzers and an assortment of other armored vehicles and Humvees, represented the northernmost advance of the U.S. forces seeking to end Hussein's three-decade rule.

After routing remnants of three Iraqi army mechanized and tank units that already had been largely obliterated by the airstrikes, the 3rd Infantry Division units turned to the east and ran into persistent resistance from militiamen and regular army personnel along Highway 9. Armed with AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, the Iraqi fighters called in mortar strikes on the U.S. armor and were met with barrages from multiple-launch rocket systems and 155mm Paladin cannons.

About 60 Iraqi militiamen were taken prisoner during the fight and several weapons caches were seized. Five of the prisoners were wounded. There was no immediate estimate of other Iraqi casualties.

[Early Monday, elements of the 3rd Infantry Division encountered Republican Guard units in the area south of Karbala and captured two officers, said Capt. Ronny Johnson, a company commander of the 3rd Battalion.

[Officers said 800 to 2,000 members of the Republican Guard were believed to be on the eastern side of the Euphrates, operating as commandos, with light antitank weapons but no armor.]

The fighting followed several days of digging into defensive positions in the desert northwest of Najaf. The pause allowed supplies to catch up to forward elements of the division, which have moved rapidly since crossing into Iraq from Kuwait on March 20. But it also opened the U.S. force to criticism that it was becoming bogged down and produced some grumbling among soldiers eager to get their job done and go home.

"I'm ready to move," Johnson said before the advance. "It's hard to win a war in the defense."

After assembling at 4 a.m., the division's 2nd Brigade moved out across the desert in the pre-dawn chill, engines groaning and tracks clanking as the armored vehicles churned up clouds of dust. The immediate targets were two Iraqi army mechanized companies and one tank company that had been sending vehicles south to probe the U.S. lines.

"They've been giving us a lot of problems with harassment," said Lt. Bevan Stansbury, the executive officer of Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 15th Regiment. "So we're going up there to kick their ass."

But by the time the Air Force had finished pounding the units during the preceding day and overnight, there was practically nothing for the 2nd Brigade to fight, only burned-out hulks of vehicles with no Iraqi soldiers in sight. Fires blazed on the horizon, thick black smoke billowing into the sky, as the morning sun's rays began filtering through the clouds.

Some of the 3rd Battalion's gunners did find targets, laying waste to a couple of trucks in the desert as the U.S. force pushed forward. "Alpha Company destroyed one truck," Johnson radioed his men. "They're out here. Stay vigilant."

Mindful of Saturday's suicide attack that killed four 3rd Infantry Division soldiers and of reports that Iraqi soldiers were operating in civilian clothes, Johnson ordered his Bravo Company troops to keep their guns trained on civilians as they passed. When his company moved through a series of quarries and small farms carved out of the arid soil, he ordered his infantrymen to clear the inhabitants' crude brick huts.

After searching one abandoned farmhouse, a platoon leader reported, "The only thing notable . . . was a new litter of puppies."

The soldiers initially barged into homes and frisked the occupants, but when the troops kept finding nothing, Johnson ordered them to bypass the dwellings. He also ordered them to avoid driving through people's vegetable fields if they could, although he was unable to prevent his heavy Bradleys and other vehicles from breaking farmers' irrigation pipes.

Along the way, groups of residents stood in their dirt yards and hoisted white flags to show that they posed no threat to the passing columns. Some waved at the tank and Bradley crews, but mostly they kept their distance and tried to avoid attention.

As the columns pressed north, the white flags fluttering above the farmhouses became more numerous. Even children tending sheep held white flags in their hands.

The invading forces passed through a moonscape of craters, canyons and abandoned quarries, weaving this way and that to avoid dead ends at impassable chasms. Through it all, Johnson sought to keep the Bradley crews and their infantry "dismounts" moving.

"Get 'em loaded up," he radioed his platoon leaders at one point. "I see a lot of picnics starting."

In late afternoon, Bravo Company finally reached Highway 9. As the vehicles turned to take control of an intersection, an oil tanker burned on the side of the road. From across the highway came the smell of burning oil. Another truck there was on fire, and oil storage tanks tucked away in sandy revetments were ablaze as well. There was no sign of military vehicles.

In clearing some nearby buildings, infantrymen found the first of several arms caches, containing gas masks as well as weapons and ammunition. Suddenly, the booms of artillery fire, followed by the sound of shells whining overhead and the whump of impact, caught the company's attention.

"Are those incoming or outgoing?" one sergeant asked on the radio.

Lt. Matt McKenna, 23, of Gaylord, Ga., the commander of a Bradley platoon, radioed back. "Mortar rounds are coming from in front of us."

Johnson repeated the query: "Are we taking incoming mortar rounds?" After a pause, he answered his own question. "Those are non-friendly fires. They are incoming mortars."

McKenna radioed that his platoon had spotted vehicles hiding behind a building. "They look suspicious," he said.

"Engage and destroy," Johnson ordered.

Then came the bam-bam-bam of a Bradley's main gun firing 25mm rounds.

Then, shouts from McKenna, using his call sign: "Red 1, we are taking indirect fire at this time!" One mortar round landed right where one of his Bradleys had been parked moments earlier.

Determined to end the threat to his company, Johnson ordered his men to call in artillery strikes on the Iraqi positions. Off and on for the next couple of hours, rockets from the multiple launchers streaked across the sky from U.S. positions to the southwest and Paladin howitzers rained down their 155mm shells.

Through it all, small groups of alarmed residents walked from their houses carrying white flags to seek safety close to U.S. positions. But one man, in a long black robe with a sack over his shoulder, strode across the desert west of the highway with a walking stick, then sat down to watch the fireworks.

A bit farther up Highway 9, a platoon leader radioed to Johnson that his men had just found "an Iraqi guy in a defensive position."

Exasperated, Johnson, 37, of Dallas, called back, "An Iraqi guy? Guys, you gotta talk to me. An Iraqi soldier, a civilian, a rock star, what?"

The man, a suspected soldier or militiaman, was taken into custody and sent down the road to join about 60 prisoners of war being held by the side of the road by U.S. military police for transport south.

"They're mostly local militia," said Lt. Brad Fisher, 27, of Mentor, Ohio, a member of the 3rd Military Police Company working for the 2nd Brigade.

The prisoners sat on the ground in rows with their hands tied behind their backs with plastic "zip strips." Many wore green uniforms, but others were clad in civilian garb. A few shivered in their undershirts.

Sgt. Spencer Willardson, 24, of Logan, Utah, a member of the 141st Military Intelligence Battalion, said most of the captives claimed to have been coerced into fighting by Hussein's ruling Baath Party. Some said party members had come to their houses and threatened them and their families with harm if they did not join. One said Iraqi officials threatened to kill a relative who was serving a jail term.

Willardson identified the irregulars as members of the Al Quds militia. Hussein's government, he said, "relies on terrorizing its citizens to take up arms."

"They're kind of a ragtag bunch," he said. "Most said they surrendered immediately. They're upset that we can't just release them."

Yet, the remaining fighters lurking just beyond U.S. positions as night fell had Bravo Company worried.

"You're going to have a wild night," Johnson radioed to McKenna. "But I've got your back."

2003 The Washington Post Company

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