Devastation on Road to Baghdad


April 1, 2003

WITH THE 101ST AIRBORNE DIVISION, near Hilla, in central Iraq, March 31

It was possible today to drive 30 miles north from Najaf toward Baghdad and not see a single living person other than American soldiers.

The roads were littered with the hulks of pickup trucks and taxi cabs that had been fired on by American forces. As for the occupants of several of those cars singled out as members of paramilitary forces loyal to President Saddam Hussein their bodies were sprawled on the ground nearby.

So it was that a swath of the Iraqi countryside along the Euphrates River, about 60 miles from Baghdad, was all but devoid of ordinary life on this beautiful spring day, as American troops from the 101st Airborne Division hunted down Iraqi soldiers and guerrillas in a relentless show of force. The battle for Najaf, 85 miles south of Baghdad, is not yet over, even as American forces have advanced northward.

Today, the Americans launched a blizzard of shells, bombs and bullets, flushing out soldiers of an Iraqi artillery unit near Hilla, north of Najaf on the road to Baghdad. The Iraqis once again combined artillery with small arms fire to shoot up helicopters, damaging five. One American soldier was killed by gunfire, officers said.

Najaf has much value in the American campaign. It sits along a major supply route needed for invading American and British troops headed to Baghdad, and some American officers feel that its capture would send a message to other Shiite cities that Mr. Hussein's government is doomed.

Outside Najaf, soldiers from the 101st Airborne seized an airfield and a power plant. American military officials hope within the next several days to be able to turn over control of Najaf to leaders of the Shiite community, the major ethnic group.

Shiites had been widely expected to rise up against Mr. Hussein, a Sunni Muslim who has frequently oppressed them, once the American invasion gained momentum.

But a combination of fear and uncertainty among the Shiite community, who suffered heavily in 1991 when they rebelled against Mr. Hussein and the United States left them to their fate, appears to have led them to a more cautious approach.

So, with each day of the war, the Americans have used more and more military power to carry out their missions, often inside Shiite-dominated towns, making for some grim realities in a part of the country where there had been little expectation of strong resistance.

Outside Najaf, major roads were closed off as the military enforced a blockade in response to a suicide car bombing on Saturday that killed four American soldiers. Entire towns were shuttered.

It was near Najaf today, the American Central Command said, that seven women and children were killed this afternoon by American soldiers. The military said that the vehicle they were riding in failed to stop when Third Infantry Division soldiers waved them down and fired warning shots.

The 101st Division's artillery strikes today gave the air an odd feel, almost like the skin of a drum, as hundreds of rounds pounded off the clear, cloudless sky.

"I've got 30 cannons, and I'm shooting them all," said Lt. Col. Bill Bennett, commander of the 101st Division's artillery unit. "I never shot so much in my life. I need some more bullets."

The Americans swapped artillery rounds with the Iraqis, who were able to place some of their shells close enough to drive back a line of American vehicles on the road. Later, the American side supplemented the ground attacks with raids by Apache assault helicopters and Air Force jets.

Near the end of the day, Bradley fighting vehicles carried American infantrymen directly to bunkers occupied by Iraqi soldiers, which were stocked with rocket-propelled grenades and other munitions. At close quarters, some surrendered, and others were killed, said Sgt. Benjamin Johnson, an infantry soldier.

"Some of them kept running around, and they picked up something that looked like an R.P.G.," Sergeant Johnson said, referring to rocket-propelled grenades. "I got two of them from the Bradley."

A group of five Iraqis came out with their hands up; another man was killed while hiding in a bunker.

The prisoners were led to the side of the road, hands cuffed behind their backs, and their heads were covered with sacks, a tactic military officials say is meant to keep both the prisoners and their captors safe by making it hard for observers to identify soldiers in custody, and to keep the prisoners from knowing where they are being taken.

If the Americans capture Najaf, it will help to send a message to other Shiite cities, said Brig. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley, the assistant division commander.

"We want the oppressed to feel hopeful, and the oppressors to feel hopelessness," he said. "Hope can put bravery in the hearts of men."

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