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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, April 3, 2003

Ambush reveals tenacity of Iraqis

By Kirsten Scharnberg
Chicago Tribune

NAJAF, Iraq — The townspeople were in the middle of an impromptu celebration, cheering and clapping and whistling for the American soldiers who had only hours before marched through the center of this holy city, when the shots rang out.

Command Sgt. Maj. Brian Stall and Spc. Travis Rotter, 22, take up positions after their convoy was ambushed in Najaf. Saddam Hussein's fighters have hidden weapons and even themselves in holy sites.

Gannett News Service

"Small-arms fire! Get your heads down!" Lt. Col. Marcus DeOlivera shouted to his soldiers. "Watch those rooftops!"

The Army convoy jerked to a halt along the main road of Najaf. People on the sidewalks fled; a man was so startled he fell off his bicycle. The 50 or so infantry riflemen of the 101st Airborne Division took cover behind their Humvees and scanned the scores of rooftops all around them through their weapons' sights.

Seconds later, a blue car sped from behind a building. Two Iraqis leaned out the front windows, with AK-47s pointed toward the convoy.

"He's coming for us!" DeOlivera screamed. "Take him out! Hit the car! The blue car! Now!"

The soldiers of 1st Battalion of the 327th Infantry Regiment started firing: M-4s, 50-caliber machine guns, a Mark-19 grenade launcher. The bullet-pocked car crashed into a pole, smoking, the men inside dead and slumped atop one another.

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For a moment, the city fell quiet. But soon came U.S. attack helicopters and the Hellfire missiles and the explosions that shook the ground as the Army destroyed the area from which the car had come. It was a suspected weapons cache.

Then the convoy rolled on, and the people returned to the sidewalks, smiling and giving the soldiers the thumbs-up sign.

The violent flurry yesterday afternoon culminated a dramatic day in the historic, central Iraq city of Najaf. After three days of biting around the edges of the city — storming and capturing a university, several military compounds and a factory — the 101st Airborne made a show of force just after dawn, marching for more than five unopposed miles through the city center with more than 130 heavily armed soldiers.

Still, for all the symbolism of having soldiers walk through the center of an Iraqi city and even being warmly welcomed along the route, the convoy ambush later in the day revealed how committed some of Saddam Hussein's most loyal fighters are and how fragile the control of the volatile nation really is.

Late yesterday, despite three days of almost constant aerial bombings of suspected militia strongholds and weapons storage facilities, paramilitary elements remained firmly rooted in Najaf while elements of the 101st Airborne continued to search for them. During a raid on a building from which snipers had been firing, soldiers found detailed maps of troop locations throughout the city and the kind of technology that many had believed the Iraqis did not possess, including night-vision goggles.

"Would I say that we now have the city firmly in hand?" DeOlivera asked. "No, I don't think I would go that far. But I would say it's certainly more in hand today than it was yesterday. And today has been one hell of a day."

The mission assigned to Alpha Company yesterday morning was simple: Some 130 men — the company plus a scout team and a sniper team — would walk nearly six miles through town to show the residents of Najaf that America was there. No one used the word "liberate," but that was clearly the mood.

At first as the soldiers walked, townspeople seemed too in awe to do anything. But after a while, local people became bolder. They rushed to the soldiers, gesturing and speaking excitedly to them in a language none of the soldiers could understand.

"I think they are happy to see me," said Pvt. Jim Strohm. "They look happy anyway."

The walk through Najaf, one of the holiest cities in the Muslim faith because it is the burial site of Ali, the Prophet Mohammed's son-in-law and the martyr of the Shiite sect of Islam, was the brainchild of Col. Ben Hodges, the commanding officer of the 1st Brigade of the 101st.

He hoped it would show the people of Najaf that the coalition forces were truly committed to helping them rid their town of oppressive elements of Saddam's Baathist regime. It is a difficult goal, in light of the fact has never forgotten how the United States encouraged it to revolt against Saddam after the 1991 Persian Gulf War and then did not step in when the regime pummeled the resistance with brute force, assassinations and destruction.

"Having a boot on a ground and a face you can see makes far more of an impact than a tank that tears everything up carrying anonymous soldiers," Hodges said. "I hope they can see from this that we are serious about being a presence that can help them. The walk, for lack of a better description, is a show of force."

But not all of yesterday's mission was goodwill. Just beyond Saddam Square at the center of town, the soldiers set up an attack formation while engineers blew a hole in the wall of a vegetable market. The soldiers stormed the market, which was almost empty, and searched several buildings that were believed to contain weapons. Dozens of mortar rounds and AK-47 assault rifles were found. While there, the soldiers tore down an Iraqi national flag.

Saddam's fighters, at least in Najaf, are tenacious. They have taken to hiding weapons and themselves inside holy sites that the Army says it will not bomb. Yesterday, two attack helicopters destroyed an armored personal carrier, an air defense radar and an air defense gun from an amusement park on the edge of town.

It was just about an hour after the march that the convoy retraced the very path the foot soldiers had taken. Halfway through the trip the small-arms fire ripped through the center of the convoy, separating the first vehicles from the ones in the rear. Two soldiers were shot, one in the leg, one in an arm and a leg. Both were doing well late yesterday.

After the blue car attacked the convoy, Hodges believed he knew where the fire was coming from. Information earlier in the day from several local people was that the municipal parking lot was being used to hide weapons. An aerial reconnaissance mission just a few hours before had showed vehicles with guns in them.

Within a couple minutes of the gunfire, Apache helicopters arrived. In the course of less than 30 seconds they rapidly fired almost a dozen Hellfire missiles. By now more relaxed, sure the situation was back under control, Hodges pulled out a cigar and lighted it as he watched the missile firing.

"That's your tax dollars at work," he quipped.