U.S. Army Unit Sees Baghdad Urban Combat
BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ For the weary members of ``Attack″ Company, it was a happy moment in a long day. Iraqi crowds were waving, grinning, cheering as the U.S. Army soldiers moved up the street Wednesday toward the tourism department.
It turned in an instant.
From somewhere in the air came weapons fire _ a rocket-propelled grenade. Explosions. An American down. U.S. tanks returning fire. Urban combat.
From the beginning, this was what the Americans had dreaded _ the nightmare scenario of blameless civilians on the street, peril from dark corners and sudden fighting in a city.
The mission, as laid out, was simple.
The company, with the 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, was ordered to take a key intersection near a northern bridge across the Tigris, part of the U.S. military’s expanding control of Baghdad. A tank squad was going along to provide heavy firepower.
Just as the Bradley fighting vehicles and Abrams tanks moved into the crossroads, a rocket-propelled grenade screamed from a narrow side street to the left, out of a decrepit slum of crumbling two-story apartment buildings.
The lead tank crew fired a .50-caliber machine gun down the street and an incendiary round into a suspicious building.
``Keep moving! Keep moving!″ shouted Capt. Chris Carter, the company commander. He didn’t want to risk getting pinned in an urban canyon with seven-story government buildings on both sides.
The tanks pulled forward. The 15-vehicle convoy edged up the street, making a U-turn at the next intersection. More Iraqi defenders fired another rocket-propelled grenade, striking the center of the turret. The tank’s uranium armor absorbed the blast; only scorched paint told the tale.
Pulling between two garbage-filled lots on the north side of the intersection, the tank crews faced back down the street, pointing their 120-mm main gun between two government buildings.
There was no fire _ at first. Carter popped his hatch to speak to one of his squad leaders when another rocket-propelled grenade came screaming in, hitting the squad leader’s turret just below where he was standing.
The squad leader went down, hurt, as shrapnel penetrated the armor and the hatch. The street exploded in gunfire as Iraqi fighters sprayed the vehicles with small-arms fire and the Americans shot back.
The back ramps of the Bradleys opened and a dozen infantrymen scrambled out, shooting at the government buildings and toward the slums where some of the fire was coming from. An armored ambulance, a red cross emblazoned on the side, loaded the seriously wounded soldier onto a litter and raced away.
The men, some with playing cards stuck in their helmets for good luck, cursed as they returned fire. Their sweat flowed, even though they were wearing only T-shirts under their flak jackets.
Suddenly, three men appeared hunkered down on a balcony in the area where the first rocket-propelled grenade had been fired. One Bradley opened up with high-explosive cannon shells, ripping through the building.
Confident the intersection was under his control, Carter sent squads into the tourism department building to weed out snipers. Another team moved into the building hit by the Bradley fire.
Inside the tourism building, the troops found hundreds of Iraqis looting all the food and furniture they could find. Smiling, they called to the Americans. ``Down with Saddam!″
In the other building, the U.S. troops found three dead men but no weapons. They were squatters, their bodies mangled and covered with dust from the shattered cement. Their meager belongings _ a change of clothes, a bowl, some cooking utensils _ were in the squalid rooms.
``I don’t know if these people are innocent,″ Carter said. ``But the guys with RPGs caused this.″
The families of the men began gathering outside, realizing what had happened. Women and children wept.
Back at the intersection, hundreds of Iraqi men and women shouted at the troops. ``Good, Good Mister!″ they said, trying to shake American hands. Mothers held up babies for the soldiers to kiss, thanking them for driving out Saddam Hussein.
Carter was upset about the tank fire, but understood it. With hundreds of civilians at the intersection, the chances of a nervous teenage soldier mistaking something for a weapon are high.
An Arab translator explained the situation to the Iraqi civilians and advised them to stay indoors after dark. Anyone roaming the streets at night, he said, would be considered suspect.
As the message was repeated over a loudspeaker, a rocket-propelled grenade whizzed at the tanks from a mosque near the bridge. Mosques are off limits to U.S. troops until hostile fire comes from them, and Carter ordered the tanks to fire, blowing holes in the walls.
The shooting from the mosque stopped.
As Carter tried to persuade the Iraqis to stop looting and stay away from American positions, an Iraqi engineer, who asked that his name not be used, made one plea.
``There are many families here, many children,″ he said. ``Please be careful when you are shooting.″