KARBALA, IRAQThe U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division's second brigade began an attack into the heart of Karbala today and met resistance from militants loyal to Saddam Hussein. Infantry advanced into the edge of the city aided by attack helicopters, Bradley fighting vehicles, and some tanks.
Iraqi forces hid in schools and rooftops firing small arms and rocket-propelled grenades at advancing soldiers. U.S. commanders cajoled their company captains to advance faster and call more artillery fire onto targets. But helicopters had to temporarily disengage after they were hit with small-arms fire. Infantry encountered far more resistance than they had in nearby Najaf, which was invaded by U.S. forces earlier in the week. Several soldiers received gunshot and shrapnel wounds.
Near the center of the city, the division exchanged heavy fire with Iraqi militants. A rocket-propelled grenade destroyed a Bradley fighting vehicle, though the soldiers inside were unharmed. After the Bradley was destroyed Lt. Col. Chris Holden called for the Apache attack helicopters to return. "We are in a hell of a fight," he told the Apache commander.
The Army's 3rd Infantry Division had engaged Republican Guard forces around and at the edge of the city, but the heavy armor did not enter the city to fight members of Saddam's Baath Party and the Feda-yeen Saddam militia. The heavy-armor division has for the most part avoided fighting in cities, leaving that fight to the light infantry of the 101st Division.
Commanders have viewed their earlier attack on Najaf as a rehearsal for this fight, but the resistance was far fiercer here. Najaf is almost entirely Shiite. In Karbala, the southern part of the city is Shiite dominated and considered friendly to the American military forces, but Saddam's ruling Baath Party seems to have a stronger foothold in the north.
Friday night inside the Kufa Soda Factory outside Najaf, Col. Joseph Anderson, the commander of the 2nd Brigade, told his battalion commanders that this would be a more difficult fight. "There are people in Karbala willing to fight," he said. "Don't be complacent; this is a new enemy and a new threat." Although 4,000 Feda-yeen fighters were originally thought to be based here, military intelligence officers believe that number may be down to 500.
The attack, Anderson said, was to begin with a show of power. "The first thing we do is attack the Baath Party Headquarters," he said. "We will blow it to smithereens." That attack, however, is more symbolic than a real blow to the Feda-yeen's combat power. The militants, according to officers, have retreated into mosques, hospitals, and schools. That assessment turned out to be true. As the infantry advanced into the city Saturday they found numerous small arms and rocket-propelled grenades stored in the school.
Still, during the planning meeting what seemed to concern Anderson the most was the prospect of friendly fire. His plan called for three brigades to come in from three different points in the city aided by Bradley fighting vehicles and tanks on the ground. In the air the attack on Karbala would include Apache attack helicopters and Kiowa Warrior choppers as well as close air support. Those joint attacks from multiple directions made this attack more complicated. "This will not be as easy as Najaf," Anderson said. "There are converging forces. It is going to be tough . . . we have to go block by block so we do not get anyone killed."
On Saturday, it was the 3rd Battalion that drew the toughest task, moving from the north into the heart of the city. Holden said that the fight for Najaf was a rehearsal of today's attack on Karbala. "It is a different culture here. We know the southern part of the city supports us . . . but how strong is the Baath Party, that is an unknown, but we will use the same tactics."
As they gathered north of Najaf, preparing for the convoy ride to Karbala, Holden walked up to Lt. John Brock, leader of the Air Defense Artillery. There is little air threat in Karbala, but Brock's Avenger trucks are loaded with a .50-caliber machine gun that can be used to protect infantrymen. As the infantry advanced, Brock planned to have his trucks follow them to protect them with their machine gun. "I am counting on you," Holden said. "You are going into the main battle. I think it will be good to have you guys. Good luck."
As Holden left, Capt. Paul Haverstick, the commander of the Air Defense's Bravo Battery, turned to Brock and cautioned him about friendly fire. The Avengers had to watch out that they did not shoot American soldiers and make sure they did not get shot by American tanks. "The fire-control messages have to be precise," he said.
The 2nd Brigade has been involved in four missions over the past eight days. But the battery's Avengers, which had not received their .50-caliber guns from Kuwaiti docks until Friday, had been out of those fights, consigned to watch checkpoints. Now, though, the Avengers were to be part of the fight. Said Spc. Codiriko White: "It should make anyone nervous, but it also makes you excited. We are part of the gung-ho missions; we are actually part of the fight."
As the sun began to sink, Capt. Mike Volpe stood in the huge field of garbage that surrounds the west side of Karbala and thought of San Francisco, his hometown. He reminisced about the Golden Gate Bridge, the Presidio, and Alcatraz. Then he turned and looked over the city. "This is the first major firefight we have had in our battalion," he said. "It's almost surreal-=you are sitting in a dump, looking at a helicopter as fires burn in the distance."