NORTH OF NAJAF, IRAQ – Twenty-four hours after the suicide car bombing that killed four US soldiers on Highway 9, some 30 kilometers north of Najaf, the air still reeks of the explosion.
The force of the plastic explosive blast not only completely destroyed the taxi cab used for the car bomb, it also charred a pickup truck and a passenger bus parked on the other side of the highway.
Cassette tapes, screwdrivers, and a woman's shawl were the only telltale signs left of the life that preceded the carnage. The similarity of the scene to the sights of suicide attacks in Israel was eerie and the comparison unavoidable.
Squad leader Sgt. Chad Urquhart lost four of his eight men in the blast. His description of the attack was deliberate and pained. 'Just as I put my radio microphone down there was this huge white blast,' he said. 'I ran to the guys – two were still breathing – I put my finger on the neck of my man to stop the blood. The medic came, looked at me, and said he was gone. The other man died 15-20 seconds later.'
Sunday afternoon, Urquhart told his commander that he decided to reenlist in the army for four more years.
Third Infantry Division commander Maj.-Gen. Buford Blount's blue eyes darted from debris pile to debris pile as he surveyed the scene. 'It is really sad,' he sighed. 'My condolences go out to the families. It is depressing to be here where our soldiers gave their lives for their country.'
Blount admitted that he has been surprised by the level of Iraqi resistance to the US offensive.
'The resistance is more than we had hoped we would have until now,' he said.
'We had hoped to keep casualties to a minimum. We had hoped that he [Saddam Hussein] would leave. But our soldiers are ready. We were prepared for both light and heavy contact.'
Blount said that, although he had expected the Iraqis to resort to terrorism, 'we thought we would encounter it closer to Baghdad. Not right here, right now.'
At the same time, the 3rd Infantry Division's commander claims that the swift emergence of the Iraqi terror threat to US forces has not caused the military to change its attack plans.
'We haven't changed our plans, although we have changed out tactics a little,' Blount said.
The main result of the change in tactics appears to be that Iraqi civilians in proximity to US forces will, as a result of Saturday's bombing, be more constricted in movement. Until the attack, some civilian traffic had continued along Highway 9, which connects Baghdad to Najaf. Since the attack, all civilian traffic is prohibited.
'We have been trying to let as many Iraqi citizens move as much as possible,' Blount said, 'but because of acts like this we'll have to restrict that a lot more.'
Blount pointedly explained that terrorist attacks against US forces will make the army less averse to causing collateral damage.
'We went into this hoping to keep collateral damage and casualties to a minimum, but they haven't let us do this,' he said.
For his part, 1st Brigade commander Col. William Grimsley expressed anger at reports that a suicide bomber was a noncommissioned officer in the Iraqi army who was posthumously decorated for his actions.
'If Saddam was to decorate terrorists it just shows what a terrorist he is,' he said. 'This will not impact our plans. What happened here is a tragedy, but it will have no influence on our actions. We won't get bogged down, we won't waste our time on reprisal operations, we will continue on.'
Bravo tank company commander Capt. James Lee, who commanded the soldiers who were killed, considered the challenge posed by a military force that has integrated terrorism into its fighting doctrine.
'Saddam obviously understands that the US Army has a hard time with terrorism,' he said. 'We left Vietnam, we left Lebanon, and [former president Bill] Clinton pulled us out of Somalia because of it. But we are here now because of terrorism. Our war here is part of our war on terrorism. So things are different now, we won't run away.'
In the meantime, the 3rd Infantry Division 2nd Brigade moved north toward Karbala on Sunday and forces from the 101st Airborne Division replaced troops from the 3rd Infantry Division 1st Brigade around Najaf and the village of Kifl.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.