BAGHDADMarine forces drew themselves up to the gates of Baghdad on Sunday, coming under sporadic fire from small arms and rocket-propelled grenades as they searched and cleared the route to a canal that acts as the final southwestern barrier to the Iraqi capital. Soldiers with the Third Battalion, Fourth Marines, had hoped to enter the city and take another objective, but came under heavier fire as they approached the two bridges that span the canal.
One of the bridges had been partially damaged by Iraqi troops attempting to disable it with explosives. These troops also booby-trapped much of the rest of the bridge. The Marines were unable to cross the second bridge because it was unsound and needed to be buttressed by engineers before large vehicles could pass. This work was hampered by a larger force of Iraqi regular and irregular troops on the other side and the need to continue securing the area after any United States forces passed through.
To reach the bridges, Marines had to secure a large stretch of road banked by military facilities and scientific centers, the latter of which are believed to be former sites of chemical and biological weapons research, Marine officers said. Although the fighting was sporadic, it was also intense at times, with Marines having to call in close air support for F-15s and other Air Force aircraft. The day was also punctuated by the whistle of rounds from howitzers and the thump of mortar rounds being sent into pockets of Iraqi resistance. The radios crackled with orders for squads to protect flanks and move forward to search inside buildings for snipers and stragglers from the Iraqi retreat. At least once, a commander could be heard yelling "cease fire, cease fire" apparently when mortar rounds began to fall too close to Marine squads moving to the bridges.
As the squads moved, tension was high, with leaders disciplining their troops on the spot when they failed to provide enough cover protection for those advancing in front of them or when they became disoriented and failed to advance to the most secure position. "Move, move, move," was the most common command as these small groups made their way toward the bridge, a look of adrenaline- pumping fear often the first response before the soldiers advanced, running as fast as their legs could carry them in their Kevlar vests and chemical warfare protective suits as they sweated in the 106 degree heat and prayed they would make it across both open alleys and boulevards.
Sometimes they would reach their goal, only to be called back to secure a rear area, cursing under their breath at this junior commander or that one. "Ours is an idiot, if you haven't noticed," said one weary lance corporal, as he caught his breath before sprinting back from where he had just come. "I can't wait to get home," said another, asking if the reporter who had been running back and forth with them was "having fun yet." Even though fire was light, no area seemed safe to these men, who, once in position, scanned windows and rooftops for any sign of enemy life. More often than not, they found only frightened civilians, but even these were hard to come by.
The fight has continued into the early evening here, with a large ammo dump on the other side of the canal, next to the possibly usable bridge, being blown up and apparently several of the Iraqi soldiers on the other side next to it were killed. The Iraqis don't dig their ammo into the ground so it can be an easy target. They also dig traditional fighting holes which, while deep, have not been deep enough, Marines said.