On the Road to Death at Najaf

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The 2nd brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division planned to halt west of Najaf, about 100 miles south of Baghdad; it also planned on facing some resistance from local irregulars. What it didn't expect was a rush-hour-like Iraqi attack, the road dense with enemy trucks bearing down on the brigade. "My headquarters had just rolled into the objective area when 10 pickup trucks loaded with men firing machine guns and RPG-7s came racing down the road," recalls Colonel David Perkins, commander of the 2nd Brigade. "My lead tanks blew up the first three vehicles, but the rest kept coming."

For hours, the Iraqis continued this furious drag race—floor it and fire—whipping down the road from Najaf into the waiting guns of the 2nd Brigade's M1 Abrams tanks. The M1s obliterated them. Says Perkins: "I didn't expect this many of them, but all that meant was we used up more ammo. And I have plenty of that, especially if it means not fighting these guys in Baghdad."

Iraqi irregulars have tried everything to get at 2nd Brigade soldiers. When two Bradley fighting vehicles got stuck in the mud, dozens of irregulars, armed with a machine gun, tow missiles and a chain-firing cannon, tried to crawl up to them. Another group attempted to paddle across the Euphrates river, shooting rpgs as they approached. Their five boats were blown apart on the water. All of these attacks ended similarly. "It's not a fair fight," says Major Kevin Dunlop. "Trucks with machine guns against tanks and Bradleys can only have one outcome. We are slaughtering them."

On the other side of the Euphrates, east of Najaf, the 7th Cavalry ran into an even bigger fight. This time the main attack came during a swirling dust storm that made thermal night sights useless. Iraqi irregulars swarmed around the U.S. forces. The Americans were ordered to stay put and shoot at anything that moved. By midnight it was over. Two U.S. tanks were lost, blasted from behind—their most vulnerable spot—by antiaircraft guns mounted on pickups. Because of the M1's unique armor, no one on either tank was injured. And one of the tanks is recoverable.

The next rush-hour attack came right after dark the next day, but by this time the 2nd Brigade had set up "toll-booths"—heavy armor—on the roads leading from Najaf. "They attacked like morons," says Perkins. "But they kept coming." In one area guarded by two Bradleys, several hundred Iraqis were killed, according to the local battalion headquarters.

Civilians, meanwhile, continually wandered out of town to encourage and even beg the U.S. soldiers to take Najaf. They said fedayeen irregulars were forcing local members of the al-Quds militia to fight by gathering their families and threatening to shoot them if they did not oppose the Americans. At one point, locals came out to thank the Americans for killing the area's Baath party leader, who they said had been executing civilians. The Baath leader, they said, had been killed in an air strike on a fedayeen stronghold.

By the next morning, Perkins estimates, his unit had killed more than 1,200 attackers and taken the fight out of the rest. At first light, an Iraqi colonel walked up to an American position and surrendered. "He was a pow in the last Gulf War, so he had practice in surrendering when things are going bad," says Captain Cary Adams. The Iraqi colonel said he had only 200 of his 1,200 men left and claimed that originally there had been two other brigades in the town. One moved out during the night toward Baghdad, he said, while the other was hunkered down in government buildings around the city.

As the Iraqi attacks died down, the 101st Airborne Division began arriving to release the armored units for other missions. Brigadier General Benjamin Freakley, assistant division commander of the 101st, briefed the leaders of the companies that would be encircling Najaf. Everyone expected the remaining fedayeen to attempt a break toward Baghdad even if it meant running the 101st's gauntlet. But if the fedayeen stayed and conscripted the locals at gunpoint again, Freakley faced a moral conundrum: "Imagine someone walking into your home and saying either you fight or we will kill your wife and daughters. They are doing what any man would do to protect his family." It won't be easy killing men who are doing that.