Battle Scars of a Fallen Air Base

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During the preflight briefing, the commanding officer is pounding home the landing advice. "Don't go north of there, don't go east of there, don't go west of there," Lieut. Colonel Mark Casburn tells the gathered crew whose HC-130 I am about to board. "Come in from the south, and leave from the south."

"There" is a newly captured air base in southern Iraq the coalition is rebuilding to relieve pressure on the 200-mile supply line into Iraq from Kuwait that has been subject to constant Iraqi harassment. And getting "there" in the lumbering HC-130, a big, slow target for surface-to-air missiles (SAMS), means flying about 300 feet above the desert and passing through a gauntlet of Iraqi radar systems. Because of all the surface-to-air- missile beacons in the area, alarms go off in the cabin. And one pesky mobile SAM battery has been roaming around and targeting incoming planes for weeks?hence the southern approach, coming in above a stretch of remote desert that is patrolled by coalition forces. When we land, the HC-130 doesn't even pause long enough to stop its four propellers. It dumps a cargo of Air Force engineers, some electrical wiring and tents, and takes off in a hurry.

The Iraqis left this place in a hurry, too. Bedsheets are still twisted in the sleeping quarters. Boots lie on the floor, and papers are strewn across airfield offices. But the unfriendly forces haven't gone far. On Thursday, scores were discovered huddled in underground tunnels, hoping to be found by American and not Iraqi forces. Firefights routinely break out on the front lines, a few miles to the north.

Besides serving as a supply depot staging area, chemical- and biological-weapons detection lab, and a medevac point, the liberated air base now has a hospital. Behind the newly erected surgical unit, hospital chief Colonel Harry Warren shows me three large crates full of Iraqi gas masks found on the base; stamped inside the unused masks are the words made in Germany.

If a gas attack comes, he'll need them for doctors and patients alike. The nearby fighting has created a steady stream of patients. Surgery goes on nonstop all day. Warren, an orthopedic surgeon, just operated on a 5-month-old Iraqi girl. She was in her mother's arms when shrapnel passed through both her feet. Her mother didn't survive. Says Warren: "We didn't expect to be operating on children here."

Khalid, a 43-year-old Iraqi, won't give his last name for fear of reprisal if Saddam's regime survives. He has a bullet wound in his right calf. He says that five days before troops entered Iraq, Fedayeen forces came to the home of his extended family in Diwaniyah, kicked in the door and took all the men between the ages of 20 and 60. Khalid was later taken to Nasiriyah, where he and a ragtag group of some 40 civilians were handed old Kalashnikovs without ammunition and pushed in front of Iraqi soldiers as they faced down an advancing U.S. armored division. "If we turned back to run away from the Americans, Saddam's men would shoot us," he says. "We had no choice."

Abbas, 30, a carpenter and father of two, says his whole family was mowed down at once. His story: Fedayeen in civilian clothes rolled an antiaircraft gun into his backyard. Abbas, having seen his neighbor protest and get a bullet in the head in front of his children, didn't say a word. "They started firing at American helicopters," he says. "The Americans started returning fire ... We had to leave."

Abbas loaded his family into their Peugeot station wagon and started speeding away. They were immediately shot up. It could have been the U.S. helicopter says Abbas, who has a white bandage wrapped around his head. "But I know the Americans saved my life." Abbas was picked up by a Marine CH-46 helicopter and flown to the base. His wife is in the hospital with him. His brother was evacuated to the Comfort. The five kids in the car all were killed.

Major Geracci, 35, a flight surgeon, knows that his Cobra attack-helicopter pilots caused some civilian casualties. "All the choppers see when they fly over Nasiriyah are civilians shooting Kalashnikovs out of their windows," says Geracci. "The pilots were talking about blowing up houses the next time they went in. They need to know that the civilians are not fighting against them." But the sound of mortar fire in the distance that night makes it clear that there are plenty of Iraqis out there who are.