NORTH OF AN NASIRIYAH, IRAQThe marines continued their slow crawl toward Baghdad on Wednesday after a fierce, blinding sandstorm stopped their convoys for more than 12 hours during the night and mortar rounds coming in at the edges of the unfinished roadway slowed travel during the day. "They've got 60's and 82's [millimeter mortars]," said Maj. Martin Wetterauer, 35, of Baton Rogue La., the operations officer of 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines. He directed some of his men to set up defensive rifle and mortar positions around the road and told the rest to get their things in order. The men, he said, did "a good job keeping everybody together and not getting anyone lost. It was unreal out there. I don't know how we did it."
But while the sandstorms have faded, Iraqi irregular forces are still a concernand becoming more so as the marines move closer toward Baghdad. Iraqi soldiers in civilian clothing have conducted ambushes and used civilians as human shields during fighting over the last several days. "The only way we can tell who these guys are is they're usually clean-shaven, don't smell, and wear new black boots," said Cpl. Qualesi Hernandez, 26, of Puerto Rico, "and that they won't look at you in the eye."
To turn the tables a bit, Wetterauer said that the marines would begin sending out squads into the desert for protection and to hit would-be attackers. "That way, we can start taking it to him, going after his caches, keep him on his toes," Wetterauer said. He added that while it is important to always respect one's enemy, so as not to become complacent, "these rogue forces, we certainly don't respect."
As he spoke, the BBC was reporting renewed clashes between Army troops and Republican Guard elements south of Baghdad, as well as continuing skirmishes in the southern areas of the country. And Iraqi attacks near An Nasiriyah, which still remained lawless, continued to weigh heavily on some marines. Their brethren had been ambushed and killed, and their bodies displayed on television; others had been captured and interrogated while the world watched. For some marines, the war was no longer a job. "I didn't take this personally till the ambush," said Lance Cpl. Buck Flowers, 22, of Dallas. "I know they were just trying to drop our morale, but what they did just really made me mad."
Many marines expected the Iraqi army to put up little resistance, at least at the beginning. Some soldiers have surrendered. "We even had one take off his helmet and spit in it, saying, 'I hate Saddam. I hate Saddam,' " noted Cpl. Cody Jordan, 24, of Fort Myers, Fla. But the surrenders are far fewer than many marines had hoped, while the ambushes have added greatly to their worries. "Baghdad," said Hernandez, "is going to be bloody."
The Iraqis are fighting with tanks that can't shoot while they are moving. The marines' Abrams tanks actually shoot better when they are on the go, marines say. Iraqi surface to surface missiles are generally no match for the defensive American Patriot missiles, and the antiartillery on the marines' troop transports can follow, track, and intercept incoming rounds before they ever touch the ground. Even the BBC noted the seeming impossibility of an Iraqi defeat of U.S. forces, telling one Iraqi official during an interview that the struggle, in the end, seemed futile for the Iraqis, asking why bother with such stiff resistance. The Iraqi official would have none of it, saying that the Iraqi forces were fighting "courageously" and discounting the thought of defeat.
While disagreeing with the Iraqis' view of the outcome, Flowers conceded that the Iraqi soldiers they've come up against "certainly got b---s, because you know they're going to lose, but they are still putting up a fight."
In the end, many marines say they understand why many Iraqis are not welcoming them in with open arms. "If somebody comes in your backyard, you're going to fight him," says Lance Cpl. Hugo Murillo, 20, of Brownsville, Tex. "I don't care if he's a good guy or a bad guy." He added that as far as he was concerned, the Iraqis fighting against him and his fellow marines in the desert "are just doing their job, just like we are." And when it is over, Murillo said, his feelings would not change. "A guy could blow my leg off. But two seconds later, if he gave up, I'd still give him a cigarette."