Baghdad battle pits US against Syrians, Palestinians, Jordanians

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HIGHWAY 8, SOUTH BAGHDAD – At nightfall Monday US forces had taken over

 

footholds in large swaths of Baghdad.

The 3rd Infantry Division's Second Brigade was located at the center of the

 

city. The 3rd Brigade was located in northwest Baghdad and the Marines were

 

located in the city's northeast. The 1st brigade was still securing the

 

airport, with the exception of the 2-7 Mechanized Infantry Battalion, which

 

was located in southern Baghdad along Highway 8.

 

The 2-7 Battalion's soldiers and commanders started the day thinking they

 

would be able to relax and use the shower facilities in Saddam International

 

Airport while awaiting their mission set for Tuesday – the storming of the

 

presidential palace north of the airport.

 

But shortly past 10 a.m. the order came from division: the 2-7 Battalion

 

would link up with the 2nd Brigade, whose forces had reentered Baghdad early

 

in the morning with the aim not simply of driving through, as they had done

 

on Saturday, but of seizing territory.

 

'Finally!' shouted the battalion's operations officer, Maj. Rod Coffey.

 

'They figured out that we don't need four battalions to defend an already

 

largely secured airport,' he added with no small amount of irony in his

 

voice.

The atmosphere throughout the battalion was one of excited anticipation.

 

 

Vehicles drove hurriedly to fuel tankers as soldiers folded up the laundry

 

they had done the night before. By 11 a.m. the entire battalion was lining

 

up to move into travel formation. The mission was to travel up Highway 1,

 

then turn onto Highway 8, to hook up with the 2nd brigade's 3-15 Battalion

 

in its blocking position along the highway inside southern Baghdad's

 

industrial zone, less than a kilometer from downtown Baghdad.

 

Coffey left the airport before the rest of the battalion to coordinate the

 

handoff with 3-15. The battalion led by Alpha company commander Capt. Rob

 

Smith moved out first, heading toward Baghdad at 11:15.

 

'Get out of our way, we're going to Baghdad!' bellowed Battalion Commander

 

Lt.-Col. Scott Rutter at tanks and other vehicles blocking his forces' move

 

out of the airport. Shortly after moving onto Highway 1, reports came over

 

the radio indicating it would not be an easy day.

 

As the battalion zipped past farmlands and buildings, loosely hidden by

 

eucalyptus trees, reports streamed in of a battle against 2nd Brigade

 

battalions that were moving through Baghdad to the north and east. By noon

 

those forces had engaged and destroyed eight suicide trucks, scores of

 

dismounted infantry, armored personnel carriers, and tanks.

 

As information flowed in through the radio, outside visibility deteriorated

 

as the sky turned white and a sandstorm seemed poised to blow through the

 

city.

 

The unit's mission was to secure lines of communication for the 2nd Brigade,

 

to enable transport of troops and supplies. By 12:30 p.m. the battalion was

 

speeding along Highway 1 toward Highway 8 in full attack formation. The

 

remains of white pickup trucks – the Iraqi version of Japanese kamikaze

 

planes – littered both sides of the road, blown up by 120-mm. Abrams tank

 

rounds. Then, too, the bodies of enemy infantrymen bloodied the sides of the

 

road.

 

'Our mission is to secure the lines of communication by killing the enemy,'

 

Rutter exhorted his troops. 'Bad guys on our left, bad guys on our right.

 

Any threat will be engaged immediately and destroyed!' he said.

 

At 12:50 p.m. the force moved off the road to bypass a minefield. Moments

 

later the news came over the radio that there were three killed, two

 

reporters and one soldier, in an attack on the 2nd Brigade's Headquarters

 

Battalion. It later emerged that the journalists and the soldier were killed

 

by a missile.

 

At 1:10 p.m. the battalion reached the industrial zone in southern Baghdad.

 

 

Smith reported an ambush against his company. No one was hurt. The forces

 

destroyed an APC.

 

Immediately thereafter a truck bomber attempted to attack Rutter's Bradley.

 

 

Gunner Jason Trombley destroyed the truck by firing an armor-piercing 25-mm.

 

round. From then on, the fire on the forces was continuous.

 

As the horizon narrowed under the weight of the swirling sands and black

 

smoke, the Iraqi date palms lining the highway gave the scene of burning

 

suicide trucks, nearby tanks, and Bradleys a surrealistic edge. Alpha

 

Company reported engaging three suicide trucks and RPG rounds. All were

 

promptly destroyed.

 

Moments later Coffey, who was already with the 2nd Brigade 3-15 Battalion,

 

reported coming under heavy RPG fire. His driver then reported that Coffey

 

was down – hit in the leg by a shrapnel blast from an RPG. Rutter called for

 

medical evacuation as he and Alpha Company closed in on Coffey's location.

The shooting against the forces was emanating from an eight-story apartment

 

building just north of an overpass where the 3-15 had been located. Sniper

 

fire and RPG rounds were also being launched from a three-story industrial

 

complex bedecked with a portrait of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein clad in a

 

keffiyeh, west of the underpass.

 

Just after Coffey and two radio operators were wounded, the 2nd Brigade

 

reported that the enemy forces firing by the overpass were not Iraqis at all

 

but Palestinians and Jordanians. 'They executed an integrated attack,' said

 

2nd Brigade's operations officer over the radio. 'They utilized snipers and

 

accurate artillery as well as suicide bombers and RPGs.'

 

The information on the identity of the forces was gleaned from prisoners of

 

war caught during the fighting. It was reported later that the defense of

 

Baghdad is largely being carried out by some 5,000 Palestinian, Syrian, and

 

Jordanian troops. The Republican Guard's units were already largely eroded,

 

the Hammurabi unit as well as others down to 25% of their original numbers.

 

Coffey returned to his radio and continued to assist in directing combat

 

operations, recommending the eight-story building from where he was shot be

 

destroyed from the air.

 

As his gunner killed two enemy soldiers running toward his Bradley, Rutter

 

told Coffey to move to the rear to be examined by a medic. In the meantime,

 

airstrikes were called to destroy the apartment building. At the same time

 

2nd Brigade reported two soldiers killed by a suicide ambush. Later in the

 

afternoon it was revealed that Iraqis surrendering to US forces had

 

detonated explosive belts strapped to their bodies as the Americans

 

approached them.

A directive went out in the evening to force all surrendering Iraqis to

 

undress before approaching US forces to prevent a recurrence of such

 

incidents.

 

For their part, the Iraqis were reporting US bombing of the Rashid hotel in

 

Baghdad. Attempting to understand the report, which had no basis in reality,

 

2nd Brigade forces assumed the Iraqis were attacking the hotel with RPG

 

rounds in the hopes US forces would be blamed for attacking the home of the

 

foreign press corps in Baghdad.

 

US forces were uncertain Monday of the status of the Iraqi government. It

 

was unclear to commanders if there was in fact any government, as most of

 

the fighting was being conducted by foreign and paramilitary forces. The

 

option of capturing the Iraqi propaganda minister and accepting a surrender

 

from him was being weighed.

 

In the meantime, Coffey, having been checked by medics, had limped back to

 

the battlefield by 4 p.m.

 

While he was gone the apartment building had been reduced t
o rubble by a

 

direct hit from an F-16 with a JDAM bomb. The building had been hit on the

 

west side with high explosive rounds and was smoldering.

 

Enemy forces killed a US combat engineer, and were run over by an Abrams

 

tank and killed.

 

As the battalion assumed position along Highway 8 at nightfall, the

 

assessment was that the major threats for the night and the next day were

 

suicide bombers, RPGs, and dismounted infantry men. Paramilitary forces

 

gathered Monday night at the University of Baghdad along the Tigris River

 

and threatened to attack US forces in the central and northern section of

 

the Iraqi capital.

'If you see something move that isn't ours, kill it,' Rutter instructed his

 

troops after ordering Coffey to go to sleep.

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.

 

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