Defense of supply lines critical
By Eliot Blair Smith
ROUTE 1, IRAQ On the road to Baghdad, the immediate threat to U.S. troops lies not with Iraqi conventional forces but from guerrilla attacks by soldiers and zealots who hide among the sand, said Master Gunnery Sgt. Frank Castillo. "They want our supply trains," he said. "If they can get our supply trains before we get to Baghdad, we'll have nothing to fight with."
U.S. Marines with the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division, take cover after coming under mortar attack during a sandstorm on a road south of Baghdad yesterday.
Some feared that Iraqi Republican Guard officers, dressed in Western military clothing, might even commit atrocities on civilians and blame Americans. One intelligence report indicated that Iraq had purchased Polish military camouflage outfits uniforms that vary from U.S. gear only in the placement of the pockets. In response, the Marines ordered all mustaches shaved to help distinguish between Americans and Iraqis with mustaches.
But other difficulties created by the unit's quick advance toward Baghdad, the tactics of the Iraqis and the sandstorm that blinded U.S. forces continue to keep the unit on edge:
Late Monday, one of the 1st Tank Battalion's four-member tank crews became disoriented and got lost. The crew, whose names are being withheld, has not been heard from since. The Marines began an air search for the lost Marines yesterday, after a debilitating sandstorm ended. It's unclear why the tank's GPS system hasn't helped locate the tank.
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Late Tuesday, two Iraqis dressed as civilians but carrying Republican Guard identification, approached the battalion and indicated they wanted to surrender. Then, one fired on the Americans. Marines returned fire, injuring the gunman.
During a roadside rest Tuesday, an Iraqi man and two youths passed refueling U.S. forces, then returned for another look. Previously, Americans had written off gawkers as merely curious. Now they question them closely.
In this instance, the older man and two youths were driving an old car distinguished only by two boxes of tomatoes in the trunk. The older man said he was a farmer driving to town to pick up his family and return them to the countryside. But questioning by Marine interrogators revealed discrepancies in the three men's stories. The older man, who claimed to be a farmer, was well dressed, wearing an expensive watch; his hands were soft, not hardened like a farmer's. "He's lying," one Marine interrogator concluded. It wasn't known what happened to the three.
Yesterday afternoon, at another roadside fueling stop, the Marines could have relied on their own intelligence reports. Small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades had been reported in the area. As the stop dragged on for several hours, the Marines grew lax. Then came small arms fire accompanied by artillery. The Marines moved the vehicles off the crown of the road. Marine lookouts fired two missiles into the desert.
"It's guerrilla tactics, but it's still an organized army, dispersed in civilian clothes, with stacks of money. And on signal they can act," said Lt. Col. Jim Chartier, 43, of Grafton, Mass., commander of the tank unit. In response, Chartier said he has increased battalion security, and, in a symbolic act, ordered his Marines to strap their bayonets or combat knives onto their M-16 rifles.
"We have to let people know we mean business," he said. "Be aggressive. You can't let your guard down."