For US troops, the desert becomes a tough adversary

As sandstorms slow the 1st Marine Division, troops recount exploits and e-mail their loved ones.

Intense sandstorms yesterday swept between the US Marines and their objective, the capital of Iraq, as three vast columns of armor ground to a virtual standstill.

As our convoy of assault vehicles, personnel carriers, and antitank guns sputtered to a stop at midday, the sand beat down and the skies flickered from bright yellow to dark brown. Early in the day, the Marines here, from the 1st battalion of the 5th regiment in the 1st Division, left their vehicles briefly with their machine guns trained on the desert, but did not engage any Iraqi troops.

As the storm intensified, though, visibility fell to less than 20 feet. Marines withdrew to their vehicles, where they would spend the afternoon and likely the night.

Ahead of us, Marine assault units met with stiff resistance from Iraqi regular units, some 70 miles from Baghdad, where commanders reported an ongoing battle. US forces were responding to snipers who homed in on their targets from sand dunes lining the highways.

The weather here promises to be as tough an adversary as some of Saddam Hussein's Army troops. The sand has caused road accidents and inhibited troops' ability to target the enemy. Members of the unit - who wrap their faces in scarves as defense against the elements - have nicknamed the storms "Saddam's scourge." Still, their spirits are high, and morale is not a problem.

Second Lt. Richard Wilkerson was proud of his colleagues' exploits further south near the city of Basra. The bespectacled officer is the acting historian for the battalion; he can recount tales of its members' bravery at Guadalcanal, and will record the story of this conflict.

"Our objective had been to secure the southern oil fields," he says. "We used TOW and Javelin missiles to destroy at least two Iraqi tanks. After that, we had two Iraqi battalions surrender. We also took hundreds of Bedouin civilians into custody and fed them as best we could. Men, women, and children were looting oil installations and seizing weapons."

"Our motto [as we travel through Iraq]," he adds, "is 'No better friend, no worse enemy.' So far, I think it is working."

Since we slipped into their convoy after we entered Iraq three days ago, these marines from Camp Pendelton, Calif., have gone out of their way to help us leapfrog ahead to the front of convoys moving to within 100 miles of Baghdad.

To return the favor, Monitor photographer Andy Nelson has set up his satellite phone for marines to tap out short notes to loved ones. Joey, whose grimy face is the color of the Iraqi sands, wrote his "li'l honey" that "love you now, always have, always will." BJ wrote his buddy: "It's BJ! OK. Forward to mom. Tell her I love her."

These marines are particularly concerned about fellow troops nearly 70 miles south near Nasiriyah, who were killed or captured in intensive fighting there. They have asked us what pictures have been shown of captured marines on Iraqi television.

Their Marine commanders have not yet informed the first battalion about their next objective. But as they close in on Baghdad, most marines we spoke to expect their mission to climax with the battle for the capital.

The Marines have still not been greeted as "liberators," as senior Pentagon officials predict they will be after they depose the regime of Mr. Hussein. But as the night descended, and lightning punctuated the dark, many of the young fighters we spoke with were hoping for far less: an end to the war, a shower, and a respite from the scourge of the desert.

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