APRIL 1, NEAR DIWANIYA, IRAQIn a show of how aggressive the U.S. military has become in protecting supply routes, Marine infantry and tanks struck back at Iraqi forces that had been using this city south of Baghdad as a base for attacking convoys.
"We wanted to establish ourselves as the dominant, or alpha, male on the block, and let them know we were happy to play if they wanted to come out, which they did," said Capt. Brian Lewis, 33, of Richmond, Wash., whose tank battalion, took the lead.
Marine convoys have come under repeated attack on their main route supply (MRS) near the city of Diwaniya, with Iraq forces attempting to penetrate Marine perimeters with both artillery and rockets. Last night, irregular forces attempted to slip through but were seen and fired upon, said Lewis, adding that the route, an unfinished highway that links up with 80 in Kuwait, "is probably one of the three principle lines we now have going to Baghdad."
As a result, marines are working hard to clear the area of enemy harassment. So Lt. Col. B.P. McCoy, of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, told his men to make a showing in the city of 300,000, in hopes of drawing out some of the 3,000 or so Iraqi fighters thought to be using it as a base. The operation consisted of about 600 Marines and a detachment of about a dozen tanks, and began with a deception meant to confuse Iraqi spies on the road. The tanks and infantry carriers lined up on the road as if they were going south to refuel. Instead they turned quickly west and shot down toward the city, coming into contact with enemy forces after rounding the first block. "We picked up a runner wearing [camouflage], then we saw 20 or 30 dismounts coming out of the treeline and out of buildings," said Lewis, noting that his tanks and the troops behind them came under aggressive fire from machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.
Some Iraqis fired from about 50 foxholes at the edge of town, and others fired from behind buildings in a battle that lasted about two hours. "We had a technical vehicle with an antiaircraft gun strapped to the top and a recoilless rifle in the bed," he said. "We had indirect fire coming in from behind buildings."
But as his tanks moved forward, many of the Iraqis surrendered. "We had about 60 guys crawl out of their holes and give up," said Lewis. He added that Kilo Company, which was also part of the action, later found the building where the indirect fire was being called in from "and engaged." "We saw guys fleeing with radios, so it was a good target," he said, adding that his forces had taken more than 30 rounds from RPG launchers during the battle, before they were also neutralized.
Although he described the fighting as fairly heavy at time, Lewis termed the Iraqi forces in the town as being "Junior Varsity" overall, noting that there were organized pockets but little cohesion; many of the troops simply ran away. In the end, 80-90 Iraqi soldiers were killed, 40 or so were taken prisoner and three were were wounded. The marines survived the operation, he said, "without a scratch." Asked why the fighting had not been more fierce, he said that talks with prisoners had revealed an intense fear of the Marine tanks. "They are really, bottom line, terrified of the Abrams. Their whole plan is to let the tanks go by and then attack soft targets," he said. "So that is why we take the fight to them. It's the shock effect, when you shoot from a tank at 1500 meters and a guy goes down, that's disheartening for them."
Although Lewis described the operation as a success, noting that the marines were "beginning to make an impact on the Baath Party, and sending the message that they are not in charge anymore," he admitted that more work would have to be done in Diwaniya if the marines hoped to secure their routes here. The operation only penetrated a few blocks inside the city. "We had hoped to make a deeper penetration but they were very aggressive and came out to play," he said. "It will have to be a future military objective, because they are assertive there."
The operation came a day after the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines discovered a huge arms cache near the city. The 2½-square-mile area of 40 buildings was now coming under the control of combat engineers, Lewis said, adding that 6000 antitank mines "stacked like checkers" were found in one building and that about 3000 RPG rockets were found in another. "It was a big enough deal that we couldn't blow it up," he said, speaking of the find.