ISKANDARIYAH, IRAQCrack, crack, crack. The distinctive sound of an AK-47 rose from a bunker 35 yards ahead of Lt. Col. Rodney McCants. A few feet away from where McCants was crouched, the bullets kicked up a ball of dust. Ahead of McCants and his convoy was a small berm, about 3 feet high. Beyond the berm, a wall surrounded Iskandariyah. Two large shipping containers blocked gaps in the wall. "Get the Avenger up here!" McCants shouted. "Put some rounds on those bunkers!"
The main fighting in Iraq seems done. But around the country small skirmishes are breaking out between the remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime and American soldiers. On Sunday, McCants found himself in the thick of some of those melees. That morning, McCants, commander of the 101st Airborne Division's 2-44 Air Defense Artillery Battalion, had been asked to lead an armed reconnaissance into Iskandariyah. In the early afternoon, he gathered soldiers from his battalion around him and explained the plan. They would drive through Iskandariyah twice. "If we come under fire we will return fire. We will not stop. But we will return fire," he said. "OK, lets go, hooah!" The men around him returned the traditional Army acknowledgement. "Hooah!" they said.
Twenty minutes later, a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on an Avenger humvee put 42 rounds in the three sandbagged bunkers. The shots from the bunker stopped. "It sounded like an AK-47," said Chief Warrant Officer Mark Bowes. "I saw the muzzle flash from the right bunker. They weren't aiming for us; they couldn't be that bad a shot."
McCants looked over the shipping containers. There was no way through, without an engineering company, to blow it up or for a tank to push it over. What's more, there had been reports that resistance fighters were booby-trapping tractor-trailer trucks to blow up when American forces move them.
"Let's go around," McCants said. "If we can't get in from the back route, that is a big indicator that there is something inside they do not want us to see."
McCants ordered the convoy to go around to the south of the city. As they passed through other towns, people waved and smiled at the convoy. But at the southern approach another berm partially blocked the way to Iskandariyah, and two tanks were parked on side streets.
Staff Sgt. John Otis stood on the lead truck with a radio in one hand and a rifle in the other, observing the tanks for a moment. "They are abandoned," Otis called out. McCants got out of his car and began talking to the civilians who had gathered around the convoy. Some begged for whiskey. Others offered cigarettes. And one man had some information: The soldiers had left that neighborhood but were farther down the road, he said, pointing to Iskandariyah.
Inside McCants's truck, his driver, Spc. Cecil Bundage, seemed excited. "This is my first combat experience," he said. "I am an expert at the range but this is the first place to really put that to the test." The convoy continued on past the berm and over a set of railroad tracks. There the residents on the side of the street did not smile. And in this town, the pictures of Saddam had not been vandalized. Residents had set up a checkpoint next to a sandbagged bunker. The convoy passed through unmolested. The road beyond was lined on both sides with bunkers and fighting positions made of concrete, dirt, and sand bags.
Ahead was the entrance to Iskandariyah. Near the narrow opening was a green tractor, placed as if it could be used to block the gate to the town. Otis called McCants on the radio: "They just moved a tractor into the position." McCants did not pause: "Roger, roger, don't stop." He ordered his convoy to turn around. He was too lightly armed, with too few trucks to fight his way out if the people inside the walled town tried to block them. A heavier force would have to come in and clear the town.
Returning to their starting point, McCants and his men discussed the reconnaissance. "I don't see going in with out a dozer or a Bradley," McCants said. The town may have barricaded itself against looters, but it may also have barricaded itself against American forces. On Sunday afternoon there was no way to know for sure.
A few hours later, after visiting the division headquarters, McCants headed back in a two-humvee convoy to his rear headquarters. The road was supposed to be secure, but as McCants passed through Mahmudiyah, military police trucks blocked the road in the middle of the town. Ahead, members of the 2nd Brigade's 3rd Battalion were engaged in a firefight. A military police vehicle had been shot through its front window. Now infantry had surrounded a mosque in which they believed soldiers were located. On the road ahead of McCants the infantry exchanged fire with snipers. McCants told Bundage to pull his vehicle over. The men jumped out of their humvees and took positions at the corner of a building as machine gun fire rattled a few blocks away and Kiowa Warrior helicopters circled above. Across the streets, infantrymen helped an injured solider into an ambulance. A half-hour later, McCants looked around as a bullet ricocheted past him.
"Guess that word 'secure' comes in more than one variety," Bowes said as he lay in the street, training his M-4 on the Iraqi men who had gathered down the block.
"Do not take anything for granted," McCants replied. An hour later, after darkness descended, Lt. Col Chris Holden and his soldiers had quieted the town enough for McCants to pass through. Back at his headquarters, McCants gathered his staff and soldiers together. At the checkpoint outside his command post, he had seen soldiers without their Kevlar helmets or flak vests on. It was too soon to take such liberties, he said.
"Take a look at history," said McCants. "This is the most dangerous part of a war." In Desert Storm, he said, more people died after the cease-fire than during it. The main fighting may be over, but the danger is not past. "I saw a guy tonight get into an ambulance," he said. "There are still pockets of resistance out there that want to do bodily harm to you."