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A 'Turkey Shoot,' but With Marines as the Targets
Posted: Friday, March 28, 2003

US Friendly Fire
US 'friendly' fire: Hitting the right targets

by Peter Baker March 28, 2003 by the Washington Post

CAMP VIPER, Southern Iraq, March 27 -- Marine Cpl. Bret Woolhether heard the first round and tried to take cover, but it was too late.

"I just turned my head, saw the flash of white, saw the warm red running down my hand," the 20-year-old from Fond du Lac, Wis., recalled at a hospital today. "I thought it was the end. I saw that round hit. I thought I was done."

They call it the turkey shoot, and they are the targets. Every day, Marines trying to keep critical supply lines open to forward units heading toward Baghdad run a gantlet through the strategic crossroads city of Nasiriyah -- over one bridge, up a few miles and then over another bridge. If they make it without getting shot at, they are lucky.

The passage, about 100 miles north of the Kuwaiti border, has become perhaps the most treacherous few miles in Iraq. A contingent of about 120 Marines trying to make it to the first bridge Wednesday came under fire from assault weapons and rocket-propelled grenades; about 15 of their Humvees and seven-ton trucks were destroyed and more than 60 of the Marines were wounded.

"Nasiriyah was supposed to be a six-hour fight," said Gunnery Sgt. Tracy Hale, 32, of Philadelphia, who was injured in the battle and brought to the field hospital here. "It's already been five days. Five days of nonstop, 24-hour fighting."

From the perspective of commanders directing the war, Nasiriyah has proved to be a strategic success. The Marines captured two vital bridges and have moved hundreds of tanks, armored vehicles, fuel trucks, Humvees and other military vehicles across them in the last few days to build up forces heading toward Baghdad.

From the perspective of Marines fighting the war, however, Nasiriyah has proved to be a nightmare. The Marines leapfrog forward across the bridges, a new unit coming to relieve the one that heads across, constantly moving to maintain momentum. With so many civilians nearby, it is never clear who is friend and who is foe.

"Each unit takes its turn being sacrificed," said Sgt. Chris Merkle, 31, from Irvine, Calif., who made the run the other day. "Everybody gets torn apart the same way."

Nasiriyah became a critical juncture early on in U.S. war planning because of the crossings over the Euphrates River. It became a killing field over the weekend with a pair of grisly disasters for U.S. troops. An Army convoy that made a wrong turn drove into an Iraqi ambush that left 12 soldiers dead or captured. In a separate incident, at least nine Marines died in the fighting. A military source said today that preliminary indications suggested they might have been killed by fire from an A-10 Thunderbolt II ground attack plane trying to help them.

Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, the top Marine commander in the region, visited Nasiriyah the next day to inspect the battlefield and came close to two or three gun battles himself, according to his chief of staff, Col. John Coleman. "It's the Wild West there," Coleman said. "We control what we want to control, but it's not a very safe place."

Iraqis mounting the attacks appear to be a mix of Saddam's Fedayeen, a paramilitary group loyal to President Saddam Hussein, and regular army soldiers. Marine officers said they have found bodies of regular Iraqi army soldiers with gunshots to the head, an indication, they believe, that the Fedayeen or Republican Guard commanders have been forcing soldiers to fight and killing those who do not.

While Republican Guard commanders apparently have come to Nasiriyah to help organize the attacks on the Marines, they do not stay once the fighting begins, according to U.S. military intelligence. The fighters themselves generally dress in civilian clothing, making it harder to distinguish them from noncombatants.

For the Marines driving through the area every day, it has been hard to know how or where to concentrate their firepower. With many of the attackers out of uniform and hiding behind civilians, Marines said they have had to refrain from returning fire, according to several interviewed today at an 80-bed field hospital that opened here in southern Iraq on Wednesday.

"It's a turkey shoot," said Merkle, a reservist who normally works as a FedEx delivery man. "It's not an actual engagement. You're just receiving fire and trying to get through as fast as you can."

At one point, Merkle recalled, some Iraqi fighters pretended to surrender. "As they're surrendering, the Marines told them, 'Put down your weapons, put down your weapons,' " he said. "They ran back into the building and pushed the kids out the windows and doors. The kids started running because they were scared and then the men ran out shooting."

On Tuesday, the Marines found Iraqi paramilitary forces using a hospital in Nasiriyah as a base to stage hit-and-run missions. "We went to a hospital and a doctor started to shoot at us," said Khalid Anzi, 34, a Kuwaiti working as an interpreter for the Marines. "The Marines don't shoot back, they talk and they call the other people to come out."

Hours after surrounding the building, Marines took 170 Iraqis captive and found 200 weapons, loads of ammunition, 3,000 chemical protection suits and a tank in the hospital compound, officers have said.

The situation left Anzi fighting tears as he sat in a recovery tent today with his friend and fellow translator, Duaij Mohammed, 32, who was sliced by shrapnel. "Bad, bad, bad situation there," Anzi said softly. "Believe me, if you see with your own eyes, you would cry."

Woolhether saw it with his own eyes and could not believe it. Just years out of high school, the young corporal was part of a unit preparing to move forward to the first bridge on the east side of Nasiriyah when suddenly it was attacked from behind. Iraqi fighters had somehow outflanked them and attacked from the southeast.

"You lay there on the ground," recalled Woolhether. "You don't know where that [stuff] is coming from. Five feet to the right isn't any safer than five feet to the left."

The Iraqis sprayed their automatic-weapons fire and rocket-propelled grenades until they blew up U.S. military vehicles parked at an abandoned gas station south of the first bridge. "All they were doing was panning left, panning right, leaving the men happy to hit something," said Hale, the gunnery sergeant. "If they hit something that exploded, they would keep firing at it."

One of the rocket-propelled grenades hit close to Cpl. Willie Anderson, 23, from Bossier City, La., "I saw about five people standing behind the building," he said. "They got a [expletive] RPG," he said. "All I could do was cover my face. It blinded me and knocked me back. That's all I remember."

With bullets and shrapnel flying, the Marines eventually called in artillery on their own position -- and then jumped over a wall to take cover from their own guns.

Hale, who broke his leg scaling the wall to avoid the U.S. artillery, served during the 1991 Persian Gulf War but said he never saw anything like the fighting in Nasiriyah. The Marines, he said, found tanks dug into the ground in wait for passing U.S. convoys and small caches of weapons everywhere so the irregular fighters could simply walk up, grab pre-positioned guns and open fire.

"They were waiting for us," he said. "It was unreal. It was something you don't ever want to have to go through."

2003 The Washington Post Company

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