Several Republican Guard divisions had been largely defeated, U.S. officials insisted Wednesday, but some of their troops were not going without a fight.
MSNBC’s Bob Arnot was reporting live Thursday morning from the general area of Kut, where he was traveling with a unit of the 1st U.S. Marine Expeditionary Force, when an already intense battle escalated into a violent, close-in firefight.
Military officials at U.S. Central Command forward headquarters in Doha, Qatar, told NBC news that the incident appeared to have been an Iraqi ambush. MSNBC.com is not reporting the unit’s exact location for security reasons, but officials said the unit was part of a convoy of Marines advancing on Baghdad through a region south of the capital that had been presumed to have been secured earlier.
“These people have a tremendous amount of fight, the vaunted Baghdad Division of the Republican Guard,” Arnot said.
As Arnot described the action on the air, mortar shells and machine-gun and rifle fire whizzed by his position. The Marines responded with Hellfire missiles, tank shells, small-arms fire and 155mm howitzers, their instructions relayed by a weapons company officer as he ran from tank to tank.
“Listen to all those charges. That’s probably more ammo than he’s ever fired in his life,” Arnot said of one Marine who popped up to fire off a volley.
A bullet missed the unit’s commander by three inches. At one point, Arnot was forced to dive to retrieve an abandoned Iraqi helmet for his own protection.
Pressed by MSNBC anchor Alex Witt for reassurance that he was not in danger, Arnot replied, “Frankly, we’re not safe. We could get hit by a rocket at any time.”
AMONG THE CIVILIANS
As Arnot, a medical doctor, held onto to a young Iraqi girl, an outgoing Hellfire missile roared over their heads. “Jesus Christ! Wow!” Arnot exclaimed. “... You have never seen anything like that!”
Some Iraqis walked out slowly to surrender, but the Marines were extremely careful about approaching them. Other Iraqi fighters have acted as though they were surrendering, only to pull out weapons and attack when U.S. forces came near.
Astonishingly, civilians were walking among the tanks.
Arnot and his interpreter persuaded a civilian woman, about 21 years old, her husband, about 35, and their 3-year-old baby, Azrah, to jump into his foxhole when they ended up in the line of fire, urging them in English and Arabic: “Get down here! Get down here! Get the baby in here! You’re going to be killed!”
Col. Tom Dowdy of the 1st Marine Division came down from his command position on foot and joined his men in the foxholes. He told Arnot laconically that his men were “simply securing some civilians from enemy fire.”
‘QUICK! GIVE ME THE BABY’
Arnot had to evacuate his position after about an hour when weapons fire resumed nearby. “Quick! Give me the baby! Give me the baby!” he ordered as he grabbed a little girl and led the family out of their foxhole, along with several other civilians who had joined them in the meantime.
After several moments, Arnot returned to the air to report that the Marines had successfully completed their mission of securing a bridge and were withdrawing to await further orders. And they had secured a sheltered safe position for the civilians.
“They’re going to be safe,” he said.
(MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson and NBC’s David Shuster, in Doha, Qatar, contributed to this report.)