ERECH, IRAQ — As the US Marines pushed north toward Baghdad Monday amid heavy fighting and renewed dust storms, the battle heated up between President Saddam Hussein's guerrilla fighters and opposition Iraqis who are attached to the US military.
It is a battle for turf, fought with bullets and grenades. But it is also an intense propaganda campaign to win the hearts and minds of civilians torn by war and loyalties.
American forces are making bold use of Iraqi opposition allies, thousands of whom trained at a base in Hungary earlier this year in both combat and psychological operations. Members of the "Free Iraqi Fighters," a group opposed to the regime of Saddam Hussein, have linked up with the Marines near Nasiriyah. In addition, Green Beret units have spread out in southern and central regions of Iraq. On Monday, one team of US Special Forces could be seen sitting on the dirt road with Iraqi men, explaining the goals of the US-led invasion.
The US Marines' prewar planning laid out a goal of being seen as liberators, not conquerors. Directives talked of tempering firepower with careful efforts to persuade the Iraqi population of US good intentions.
Marine commanders said their units were facing new attacks from Iraqi "Fedayeen," or martyr units, dressed in civilian clothes and using Iraqi children to lure US fighters into ambushes.
That such plain-clothed guerrilla units continue to operate in central and southern Iraq - where the predominant Shiite minorities have been persecuted - is a testament to how determined President Hussein is to inflict losses on US forces before they encircle the capital, Baghdad.
Hussein, whose propaganda has talked of US imperial aims in the Arab world, urged Iraqis in a TV address Monday to draw US forces into "traps," promising them that Iraqi victims of "American aggression" would go to paradise.
Fighting in Nasiriyah continued Monday as Marine commanders vowed to capture a key airport some 50 miles north of the city.
"We are pushing ahead into the unknown," says a senior Marine commander.
Hussein's elite units, melding with the local population, have slowed the Marine advance with continued guerrilla attacks, according to Marine sources.
As dust swirled beneath the thud of heavy artillery fire Monday, Lt. Col. Bob Abbot complained the Iraqi leader would stop at nothing to prevent his fighters from what he said would be the "complete liberation of Iraq." "Child fighters are being forced against their will to fight for Saddam Hussein," he said. "But when they pull the trigger, the result is the same."
Lt. Colonel Abbott warned that US Marines are instructed to shoot to kill on any suspicion that they are under attack. He called the strict rules of engagement for Iraq necessary to make it clear that the military will not tolerate guerrilla tactics.
Commanders at the First Marine Division headquarters ordered more fighters to push toward Baghdad Monday. Apache and Black Hawk helicopters raced into fray behind some of the heaviest armored units the Marine Corps has.
Other Marine commanders also confirmed that Fedayeen units were using women and children to slow down their advance. "Saddam's Fedayeen are just like Hitler Youth," says Lt. Richard Fisher, security manager for the Marine Division headquarters. "They use nonstandard attacks and kids to slow us so that snipers can take shots at us."
Sources at the headquarters said suicide bombers had already mounted attacks against Marines, they gave no details or locations of the alleged strikes.
The Marines employ several hundred Free Iraqi fighters to help them convince locals that their invasion will benefit them.
Bakir, a graying Kurdish self-proclaimed "freedom fighter" from San Diego, Calif., insists that the region's persecuted "Marsh Arabs" are reluctant to support Hussein's efforts to spark a guerrilla insurgency. He says Iraqi fighters have surrendered in the hundreds to Marines in the special Assault Amphibious unit to which he is attached. "Saddam's fighters are becoming only recognizable by the green socks they wear," says Bakir, who asked that his last name not be used to protect his family. "I'm trained with a firearm, but I haven't had to use it yet."
Bakir, indistinguishable from his US colleagues in dress, says he had forged common ground with the southern Shiite Muslims. He points to an arid field he claimed had been drained of water by the government as punishment for lack of support in southern and central Iraq. "Those who have been persecuted by Saddam Hussein, myself and the Shiite Muslims here included, are finding more common ground to stand on."