U.S. Marines were trying to figure out what caused a communications breakdown here Thursday that resulted in one Marine unit firing on another, wounding 31 Marines, two of them critically. Many of the Marines are becoming frustrated by their inability to fight an enemy who mingles with the surrounding civilian population.
The incident was a very hard experience for the young Marines of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines. They came under attack during the night from Iraqi forces and called in artillery fire from a nearby Marine unit.
The Marines have sophisticated equipment — thermal imaging, night vision gear and computers — to keep track of where each unit is located, but the technology failed them.
In the midst of all the chaos, most of the shots roared overhead to fall on the Iraqis. But some rounds fell short, exploding on the Marine positions.
The battle and “friendly fire” lasted about 90 minutes. In addition to the injuries, two Marine 7-ton trucks were burnt and several Humvees were damaged. As one officer noted, they were very lucky that no one was killed.
My NBC News crew and I had been staying with many of these Marines just a day and a half ago, and had gotten to know some of them, but we had moved away to another location nearby.
WEARING KID GLOVES?
The friendly fire incident added to the frustrations these Marines are feeling here. Some of them believe they are fighting with kid gloves against a foe who hides in the civilian population. The Iraqis take pot shots at them, and the Marines have a very difficult time returning fire because they’ve been told to avoid hitting women and children and they cannot fire unless they have a clear shot at the Iraqi soldiers.
The Marine commander believes some of the Iraqi attacks are being coordinated by cell phone, so he has called in air and artillery strikes to take out the telephone system in Nasiriyah as well as the electrical and water system.
As a result, the Marines are beginning to see more and more refuges streaming out of the city, their belongings in wheelbarrows or on their heads and waving white flags.
They’re trying to find somewhere to go to escape the fighting, but there is really no place where they will be safe, so the Marines are escorting them back to the bridge and sending them home.
The Marines are holding these two key bridges to allow supplies to come through for the 1st Marine Division, which has already crossed the bridges and moved to the north. But for the last 2 1/2 days, no supplies have come through because the Marines have not been able to stifle the persistent Iraqi attacks. Nine Marines died and 30 were wounded this weekend in the initial fighting to control the bridges here.
CIVILIAN DEATHS IN BAGHDAD
In Baghdad, meanwhile, at least 14 civilians died when one or more bombs hit a shopping area.
Iraq claimed the United States was responsible. U.S. Central Command said Thursday “it was entirely possible” that an Iraqi missile was to blame.
Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said there was an Iraqi missile battery near the neighborhood and that Iraq has been using old missiles fired with their guidance systems turned off.
“We think it is entirely possible that this may have been an Iraqi missile that went up and came down,” Brooks said.
Iraq’s health minister said 36 civilians had been killed and 215 wounded in U.S.-led airstrikes on Baghdad a day earlier.
Health Minister Omeed Medhat Mubarak said the total number of civilian injured and dead since the war began a week ago is more than 4,000, including 350 dead.
The United States has not compiled estimates of civilian casualties in Iraq.
An NBC News analysis of reports and photographs from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters indicated damage in five Baghdad neighborhoods — Azimiyah, Doura, Al-Shaab, Qadisiyah and Khadr.
Among the targets hit, according to previous reports, were an Iraqi orphanage, a tourist restaurant on the Tigris River and several residential neighborhoods.
U.S. DEATHS RISE
The U.S. military reported Wednesday the deaths of three more servicemen, bringing the U.S. death toll to 26, 19 of which resulted from hostile action, since the war began March 20.
Military officials confirmed that Pfc. Howard Johnson II of Mobile, Ala., was killed Monday in an Iraqi ambush near Nasiriyah. Johnson, 21, was a member of the 507th Maintenance Company, based at Fort Bliss, Texas.
On Sunday, at least 10 members of the 507th Maintenance Company went missing in Iraq. Five were seen later in Iraqi video being interrogated.
The military also reported that Army Spec. Jamaal Addison of Roswell, Ga., 22, was killed Monday.
On Tuesday, U.S. officials said a Marine drowned while trying to cross a canal in Iraq. Marine reserve Cpl. Evan James of La Harpe, Ill., disappeared underwater Monday while trying to cross Saddam Canal in southeastern Iraq. His body was recovered Tuesday.
Another Marine involved in the same mission — Sgt. Brad Korthaus, 29, of Davenport, Iowa — was found to have drowned in the same canal and was pronounced dead Wednesday. Korthaus was a member of the same Peoria-based reserve unit.
Another U.S. serviceman died Tuesday from wounds suffered in a grenade attack in Kuwait that has been blamed on a U.S. Army sergeant. Air Force Maj. Gregory Stone, 40, based in Boise, Idaho, was pronounced dead Tuesday morning at an Army field hospital in Kuwait.
Sgt. Asan Akbar is in custody in the attack. He was shipped to a military jail in Germany on Tuesday after a judge found probable cause to try him in connection with the attack. Akbar, a U.S. Muslim who told family members he was wary of going to war in Iraq, has not been charged.
Also Tuesday, a Navy corpsman was killed near Nasiriyah, the Pentagon confirmed. His name has yet to be released, pending notification of his family.
The official total of dead and missing British troops, including non-combat deaths, rose to 22 after two British soldiers died in combat Monday. Two others were killed in a “friendly-fire” incident during an encounter with a British tank near Basra in southern Iraq.
The British Defense Ministry identified the men as Cpl. Stephen Allbutt, 35, a married father of two, and Trooper David Clarke, 19. They died Monday evening when their Challenger II tank was mistakenly targeted by another Challenger crew. Two other soldiers were seriously injured.
There were also reports Wednesday of two prisoners of war, according to the Qatar-based Al Jazeera satellite station. The Arabic-language television network said it obtained exclusive video of the dead and the POWs after fighting at Zubayr, near the southern Iraqi city of Basra, over the past two days. It did not say where the video came from.
Iraq has also taken a number of coalition personnel prisoner. Two pilots of an Apache helicopter were held after their helicopter went down near Karbala as it targeted Iraq’s elite Republican Guard.
The men, identified as Army Chief Warrant Officer Ronald D. Young Jr., 26, of Lithia Springs, Ga., and Chief Warrant Officer David S. Williams, 30, of Orlando, Fla., appeared on Iraqi TV on Monday.
At least seven U.S. soldiers have been taken prisoner since the weekend.
On the battlefield, up to 500 Iraqi fighters were thought to have been killed in the last two days by the 3rd Infantry Division’s tanks and mechanized units as they swept through southern Iraq, said Command Sgt. Maj. Kenneth Preston of V Corps, who oversees the 3rd Infantry Division.
Preston said U.S. forces ran into “a lot” of Iraqi tanks and anti-aircraft weaponry and “thousands and thousands” of weapons around the city of Najaf.
“This could have been very ugly, but they’re not very motivated,” Preston said of the regular Iraqi army recruits. “I think a lot of them wanted to go home.”
Later Tuesday, a Reuters reporter traveling with the 1st Marine Division said about 30 Iraqis who may have been on their way to reinforce Nasiriyah were killed in what appeared to be a bombing raid by U.S.-led forces.
Two Western journalists were killed Saturday in Iraq. Australian cameraman Paul Moran died in northern Iraq when a car bomb went off. The blast was blamed by Kurdish officials on the militant Islamic group Ansar al-Islam, which Washington has linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network.
The same day, Terry Lloyd, a senior journalist from the British Independent Television News, was killed after coming under fire on the way to Basra. Two more ITN journalists went missing Sunday after their car came under fire near Basra the day before.
(NBC News’ Robert Windrem, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.)