KUT, IraqAs the U.S. military advanced toward Baghdad across a swath of central Iraq, forces of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines probed and then overran several Republican Guard positions in and around Kut on Thursday, destroying seven T-55 and T-62 tanks and killing 30 Iraqi soldiers. Three marines were also wounded in the attack, which began early Thursday and lasted much of the day. It was a continuation of other operations already taken by these marines in several smaller cities to the west, reflecting what commanding officer Lt. Col. B.P McCoy has said would be an ongoing mantra of "taking the fight to them" and "letting them know we're here."
At Kut, southeast of the capital, the marines began the offensive with heavy shelling from howitzers and mortar rounds, as well as airstrikes. Ground forces were then sent in, fanning out along the edges of the city and penetrating about 4 miles inside into areas known to contain Republican Guard forces and local militias. As the day wore on, the troop radios cracked with requests and orders. "We'll start getting on your right flank and start helping out," said one. "Ready to go forward and clear," said anther, as tanks and troops in armored assault vehicles moved father into town, shelling military facilities and running from building to building, conducting searches.
Gunfire could be heard sporadically throughout the area but the main battle took place on the outskirts of town in a palm grove. There, Marine Abrams tanks came under fire from Iraqi tanks and troops, some of them conducting "suicide missions," said the marines, recalling how two Iraqi soldiers ran up to an Abrams and fired an rocket-propelled grenade, which bounced off. "They're long on courage, but short on smarts," said one marine as he headed off to check on another section of the city.
The three marines wounded in the operation were hit by snipers and evacuated aboard Chinook helicopters, which circled into the landing zone like great lumbering birds, then plopped down under a cloud of red smoke from flares and to the rat-a-tat of the ongoing battles nearby. All of the wounded marines were expected to survive, said Navy medic Anush Sarabakhsh, 29, of Palos Verdes, Calif.
Marines joked with one marine being treated for a gunshot wound to the upper chest that he had walked into a Purple Heart; though blood continued to drip down from the packing of his wound, the marine smiled and gave a thumbs up. Sarabakhsh had also treated one of the Iraqi wounded, noting that it was the first time he had treated a enemy combatant "and it was a little weird."
"You certainly don't have the same feeling for them but you work on them just as hard," he said. "It was tough though, having just seen what had happed to some of our marines."
The marines also took several prisoners, roughly moving at least two of them from one armored assault vehicle to another before moving them out of the city. One of the prisoners appeared to have been wounded in several places by shrapnel.
The marines pulled back around 4:30 p.m., with the order for "air to drop whatever they got to cover our disengagement." With that, as the tanks pulled back, howitzers and mortars again pounded selected sites in the city.
The road from the town was awash with refugees, mostly men and young boys, fleeing Baghdad with only what they could carry. A few elderly women in black chadors walked with large boxes of bottled water or bags of goods on their heads, while other refugees held suitcases on their shoulders or dragged them behind. Some said they were headed to the southern city of Basra, though many only repeated that they were leaving Baghdad. Few had any transportation except their feet, although two boys were able to hitch a ride on their donkey.