American warplanes, including two B-52 bombers, decimated a large Iraqi column that was trying to use the cover of darkness and a sandstorm early Thursday to attack the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division about 80 miles south of Baghdad, U.S. commanders said.
They said the Iraqis made a major miscalculation on Wednesday, sending a large column of troops in trucks to attack the lead elements of the U.S. 3rd Infantry near Najaf.
The Iraqis apparently believed the column, which at times was as much as 12 miles long, would not be seen by U.S. forces as it traveled by night and in a sandstorm.
But U.S. J-STAR electronic surveillance aircraft, flying above Iraq, detected the Iraqis and called in the airstrikes.
According to U.S. commanders, the column got to within a mile or two of the lead elements of the 3rd Infantry and began to engage in a firefight with the U.S. ground forces.
But at that point U.S. F-14 and F-18 aircraft struck the front vehicles in the column, preventing it from advancing, and two B-52 bombers were called in.
The B-52s dropped more than 50 bombs, including J-DAM-guided munitions and decimated the column. There was no word on Iraqi casualties.
But one commander referred to the Iraqi attack as a “suicide mission.”
The 3rd Infantry has seized two key bridges over the Euphrates River here in recent days, and U.S. commanders believe the Iraqis may have been trying to recapture the bridges or at least to prevent more U.S. forces from crossing them.
U.S. commanders said they were not certain whether the attackers are irregular forces or members of the Special Republican Guard. But they were wearing uniforms that U.S. commanders say resemble the uniforms worn by the 3rd Infantry.
American troops found a cache of similar uniforms near here in recent days, plus ammunition, including rocket-propelled grenades.
Concerned about the uniforms, U.S. commanders are now changing the rules of engagement, which tell American troops when they are authorized to fire at a possible attacker.
From now on, they are free to fire at anyone wearing a U.S. uniform who engages in threatening behavior, unless that person is wearing the mottled tan chemical warfare pants currently worn by all 3rd Infantry forces. The U.S.-style Iraqi uniforms apparently do not include the chem-warfare pants.
(NBC News correspondent David Bloom is traveling with the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division.)