Inside the 'most intense' fight yet
Ambushes and close-in combat in the battle of Najaf
SOUTH OF BAGHDAD
The sandstorm was blinding, and the sky an eerie blood red. Sgt. James Ositis and his troops from the 3-7th cavalry were fighting through an ambush by hundreds of Iraqi fighters near the city of Najaf, when suddenly his tank engine was hit by a missile.Skip to next paragraph
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"I looked up and could see the sparks and fire going up," says the gunner from New Albany, Miss. He jumped on top of the stalled tank and kicked open the hatch, yelling, 'Get out! Get out!' "
All four crew of the M1A1 tank then leapt to the ground and made a 15-second dash, under heavy fire, to a Bradley fighting vehicle nearby. Before the Bradley's back hatch was half-open, the tankers lunged in, thankful to be alive.
The battle of the 3-7th Cavalry Squadron to isolate the Euphrates town of Najaf this week has been the Army's "most intense" engagement so far in the Iraq war, according to 3rd Infantry Division commander Maj. Gen. Buford Blount III. Indeed, with reports of a major Iraqi counteroffensive planned for Thursday night, the Army is still fighting to root out a few hundred stubborn remnants of the thousands of Saddam Hussein loyalists who infiltrated Najaf.
The ongoing battle illustrates starkly how US forces are fighting a very different kind of war - and a far more determined enemy - than they expected to face in Iraq. Waves of guerrilla-style attacks and ambushes by fighters dressed as civilians have forced US heavy-armor units like the 3-7th Cavalry to maneuver almost like a light infantry force in urban areas. "We did not expect the ambushes. They prepared control ambushes in the middle of nowhere," General Blount says. Iraqi forces are also more "tenacious and willing to fight" and better armed than expected, he says. The Iraqi tactics of waging resistance by stockpiling weapons and mobilizing forces in a string of Euphrates cities and towns has led US commanders to adopt a siege strategy of warfare.
Seeking to avoid urban combat, US commanders have instead used a portion of their heavy combat brigades to cordon off and isolate a number of towns such as Najaf that they had originally planned to bypass on the way to Baghdad, Blount says.
Overconfident projections of the degree of Iraqi resistance have also led to periods of critical fuel and ammunition shortages. Weather and terrain have further hampered US forces by grounding helicopters and miring tanks and vehicles in mud and sand.
Still, miraculously, some soldiers say Army units such as the 7th Cavalry's 3rd Squadron have emerged so far virtually unscathed. After a week of almost continuous battle, the 3-7th has not lost a single one of its 1,000-plus troops. Only four men were wounded in the Najaf fighting, while an estimated 300 Iraqis were killed, according to Brig. Gen. Louis Weber, who helped direct the battle.
Perhaps the most surprising, say 3-7th soldiers and commanders fresh from the battlefield, is the willingness of Iraqis to fight to the death. "These cats are fighting hard," says Lt. Col. Terry Ferrell, the 3-7th's commander. "By no means do they see that tank and run away. They see that tank and try to shoot it with an AK-47."
In recent days of fighting, Colonel Ferrell and his troops watched Iraqi fighters drive taxis, buses, and an ambulance into battle, and ram a tank with a fuel truck. "It didn't blow up, but it crushed the [truck] driver and killed him."
Also surprising at Najaf were the wave attacks by fighters believed to include members of the ruling Baath Party and elite Republican Guard, as well as the Saddam Fedayeen and local paramilitary militia. Some 300 to 400 reinforcements were pouring in to Najaf from the city of Hillah to the North, Blount says. "They kept coming at us for 12 hours straight," says Capt. Gary O'Sullivan, commander of 3-7th's Bravo troop. "We'd kill some, they'd run away, and then come back and start again."