In what could be an ominous preview of the battle for Baghdad, Iraqi forces — many of them mingling in civilian clothes with women and children and firing from a hospital — have stymied U.S. Marines attempting to hold a pair of bridges on a key route north to Baghdad.
At one point, the Marines had gained control of both bridges and traffic was flowing north on Highway 8, a road the Marines have now nicknamed “Ambush Alley.” But over two days they have been pushed back after surprise attacks by Iraqis dressed in civilian clothes and firing from nearby buildings.
Monday evening, the Iraqis controlled the bridge over the Saddam Canal, but by Monday night, the Marines said they were once again in charge. At least nine Marines have been killed and 50 wounded.
One of the wounded, 21-year-old Lance Corporal Joshua Menard, said he and six other Marines were standing guard on the bridge to prevent civilians from crossing. Shots were fired at them from the right side of the bridge, but when they went to return fire, “I heard walls of fire, mortars, everything,” Menard said. “That’s when we looked on the civilian [left] side... and saw them running outside with some rifles and we ran over there and ... knocked a few of them down and they went in a building and we started loading up the building and that’s when I caught the round.”
Menard was wounded in the hand. He was quickly treated at a field hospital, but he was lucid and even used an NBC satellite phone to call his mother and let her know his injuries were not serious. Two other soldiers were wounded — one in the shoulder and one received a concussion from a large explosion — but doctors say their injuries are not life-threatening.
A Marine chaplain was there holding one of the Marine’s hands, not talking to him about religious matters but just telling him in a comforting tone of voice that he was going to be OK. I heard one Marine say to one of the injured men, “Don’t worry, we’re here to take care of you, buddy.” You hear about the “Band of Brothers” in the military and that’s what you see here.
DECEPTION WORKS FOR IRAQIS
Some captured Iraqi prisoners say they were ordered to use any means necessary to ambush the Marines, including putting women and children in the street.
Many of those on the “civilian” side of the bridge are Iraqi soldiers who have shed their uniforms and are surprising the Marines by taking up positions in nearby buildings, including a hospital, which prevents the Marines from returning fire because they’re concerned they’ll hit people being treated there.
In such close quarters, the most support the Marines have been getting is from the artillery. But the U.S. rules of engagement are making that difficult. The rules state that the Marines must see an enemy soldier firing at them before they are authorized to call in artillery strikes.
It’s a very difficult, very bloody urban battle and will probably continue tonight and again tomorrow. The bulk of the fighting is in very close quarters, and the Marines have been training for that for years.
Despite their setbacks, the Marines were confident all day Monday that they would gain control of the bridges again.
(Kerry Sanders is an NBC correspondent traveling with the First Marine Division.)