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.
"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."
Meanwhile, a severe sandstorm Tuesday and Wednesday limited visibility to a few yards, allowing the enemy to approach to as close as 20 feet before the cavalrymen spotted them. "We were moving to secure a bridge and were ambushed by nine to 10 Iraqi soldiers only 20 feet away," says Capt. Jeff McCoy, 3-7th's Charlie troop commander.
It was McCoy's first battle. "You're constantly terrified, but you don't realize it until it's over," he said as he prepared for a day's rest.
The intense, closein combat meant that the 3-7th Cavalry burned more fuel and shot more small-arms ammunition than expected. At the end of five days of fighting, a sizable portion of the cavalry at Najaf was running "black" or "near empty" on 7.62-millimeter machine-gun ammunition and fuel, with some vehicles having only 30 minutes' worth of gas left.
But the cavalry had used only about one-eighth of its main-gun tank rounds, Ferrell says. Going into Iraq, the 3rd Infantry Division "didn't carry as much ammunition as we could have, because we didn't think we'd face this level of resistance," says one Army colonel.
Moreover, the bad weather grounded Army helicopters, so 3-7th commanders called in strikes by Air Force bombers that fired some 24 precision-guided missiles on enemy targets Tuesday night alone. They also ordered a devastating artillery barrage of 12 rockets from a multiple-launch rocket system.
While the 3-7th Cavalry fought off the attacks and disengaged, it did lose two M1A1 tanks and one Bradley fighting vehicle to enemy fire, probably by antitank missiles. Still, in a test of the M1A1 design, all eight crew members escaped the two tanks, including the driver of one who couldn't get out until the tank's ammunition had detonated.
"The ammunition was cooking off and raining flames down in front of him, and when it was done, he just jumped out," says Captain O'Sullivan. Unable to maneuver in the muddy soil, the tanks and other armored vehicles were forced to stay on a road adjacent to Najaf, taking enemy machine-gun fire, mortar rounds, and rocket-propelled grenades, "like ducks in a row," he says.
Soldiers say the last few days for them have been a blur of enemy tracer rounds, sand, and gunfire. "I don't know what day it is anymore, says O'Sullivan, who spent the last four days without getting out of his tank. "I've been sleeping standing up for one half hour at a time. My mouth doesn't work anymore," he said.
The 3-7th Cavalry soldiers are gaining needed rest and their first hot meal in days in an encampment tonight. They say, however, that they are ready to refit and resupply, and rejoin the battle. "I'm mad," said Sergeant Ositis, who lost his tank. "Blowing up my tank was like blowing up my home. I've lived there for three months. The photos of my wife were in there."
Ositis and his comrades fought in the bold tradition of their historic cavalry unit, which traces its heritage back to General Custer. But today, their faces wore the somber expressions of young men aged and jaded by war.
"Everyone thought it would be like in 1991, when they gave up in floods," says Ositis. "Now, I've shot a lot of people, and not one has given up."
His fellow crewman agrees. "The same people in civilian towns who wave to us when we roll through are the ones who grab AK-47s at night and fire them at us," says Sgt. 1st Class Curtis Anderson from Sacramento, Calif. "It really isn't safe anywhere. I don't trust anyone."
As they worked on their vehicles in white T-shirts, the soldiers couldn't get the images of the clash out of their minds. When Sgt. James Davis from Cherokee, N.C., thinks of the last several days, he sees the bright white streaks of enemy tracers. "We didn't know at times if we'd make it. You've got to be right with God."