Volunteer fighters from Syria were among the forces battling US troops in recent days in southern Iraq, say civilian witnesses.
The accounts from the southern city of Samawah contribute to evidence that the US faces a stubborn fight from non-Iraqi Arab volunteers. Unlike Iraqi soldiers, their loyalties lie with militant anti-Western Islam, not the toppled regime of Saddam Hussein.
Hundreds of Arab volunteers have reportedly entered Iraq from Syria and Jordan in recent weeks, and US troops in Baghdad were fighting non-Iraqi Arab fighters in several districts Thursday.
On the night of April 3, US troops arrived in Samawah to clear Iraqi forces from this city of 124,000 people.
According to separate accounts by local Iraqis Mohammad Sami Noon and Montaha Ayed, Iraqi soldiers and Syrian volunteers decided to make a stand within their neighborhood.
The day of April 3, Noon watched as uniformed Iraqi soldiers brought 40 to 50 strangers to town in small cars.
The passengers carried Kalashnikovs and machine guns. Their pattern of speech gave them away as Syrians. Ayed's husband also saw the Syrian volunteers as they fanned out among houses.
"[The Iraqi soldiers] just left them in the streets in civilian clothes to fight," says Mr. Noon.
That night, some of the Syrians climbed onto Noon's roof.
The Syrians opened fire on advancing American troops from Noon's rooftop. It was around 11 p.m., and Noon's family, terrified, took refuge together in a small room.
In Ms. Ayed's home, she, her husband, and their four children took what shelter they could in their small house.
Both Ayed and Noon said the Syrians were "shooting everywhere." Coalition bomb explosions broke up the constant sound of gunfire. Around 4:00 a.m., the bombs caught up with both families.
Ayed saw a bomb crash through the roof of her home and land on her 14-year old son.
"It was so dusty inside we couldn't see anything," she says. "I'm injured and I saw my son dying in front of me and I couldn't do anything."
She says her other son and husband were also injured by the bomb. She tried to move to help them, but couldn't. Her other two children were lying down screaming.
The bomb that landed on Noon's house injured six members of his family; one, his father, would later die.
The bomb also set his house on fire. For the next two hours, he and his family were trapped between bullets and asphyxiation.
"We moved toward the windows to get some oxygen. And we were so afraid to move toward windows because we could be shot," Noon says.
Noon tried desperately to let the American forces know that they were only civilians.
He risked the hail of bullets and moved toward his garden to shout to his neighbors for help. Finally his neighbors were able to raise a white flag and the American forces saw it.
The wounded from both families were taken to Talil Air Base near Nasiriyah. The military hospital here is the biggest in Iraq. It is run by the 86th Combat Support Hospital out of Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. Since it opened several weeks ago, the hospital has treated nearly 500 patients - most of them Iraqi civilians. Some fell victim to the battlefield mistakes of coalition forces, others were put in life-threatening positions by Iraqi forces.
According to hospital staff, Noon and Ayed's stories are part of larger trend of Iraqi forces using civilians as shields. Despite their losses, both Noon and Ayed don't hold any bitterness toward the Americans.
"The reason [for what happened] is the Syrians and Iraqis who wanted to shoot the Americans from my home," said Noon. "That wasn't a fair fight. I know that the Americans just don't shoot on civilians."
They have been surprised at the level of care they've received.
"[Our government] told us that the Americans are like devils. And we were so scared," Ayed said. "But everything is different. These guys are just like angels over here."