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Tuesday, March 25

Squadron's rookies see plenty of action during battle

By Sean D. Naylor | Army Times

EAST BANK OF THE EUPHRATES RIVER, Iraq - Capt. Clay Lyle's voice on the radio gave no hint of the violence that was about to erupt.

``We're in contact,'' Lyle said calmly.

His words marked the first moments of a 24-hour running battle that pitted the 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, against Iraqi troops as the squadron pushed north toward Baghdad along the Euphrates river.

By the time the fighting ended, Lyle's regiment had lost three Abrams tanks, a Bradley fighting vehicle and several trucks - but no U.S. soldiers were seriously injured. Two of the tanks were knocked out by Iraqi shelling, the first Abrams ever lost to enemy fire.

The fighting began at 8:30 p.m. Monday local time (12:30 p.m. EST Monday) when about 200 Iraqi troops ambushed the 500-vehicle convoy at night along the western bank of the Euphrates.

Red tracers arched back and forth as the Iraqis, dug in a hundred yards back on each side of the road, traded fire with the U.S. troops. The U.S. forces poured high-explosive shells into the Iraqi positions, and the Iraqis responded with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, hitting two U.S. trucks and a Humvee.

The encounter ended soon after squadron commander Lt. Col. Terry Ferrell ordered his soldiers to fire howitzers at the Iraqis. The radio crackled with taut voices barking grid references, then six orange fireballs blossomed over the Iraqi positions. A pair of A-10 Warthog jets delivered the final blow, dropping bombs, then strafing the enemy position.

That was just the start.

Just before midnight local time (about 4 p.m. EST) in the streets on the edge of Al Faysaliyah, just west of the Euphrates, the Iraqis attacked again.

Dozens of Iraqi militiamen hit the convoy with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. The convoy dispersed up side streets, but the leading elements headed for a bridge that seemed to offer an avenue of escape.

The bridge held up under the first five vehicles but buckled under the 70-ton weight of an Abrams tank, plunging the tank into a gulch. The crew escaped uninjured, but Ferrell had no choice but to turn all 500 vehicles in the convoy around to find another route.

In the darkness and confusion, with Iraqis continuing to fire on the convoy, two more tanks and a fuel truck rolled into ditches. Of the three tanks that had fallen into ditches, Ferrell managed to put two back on the road, but he had to abandon the other tank and the fuel truck. The squadron then retraced its way through the town, knocking out Iraqis, some firing rocket-propelled grenades.

Once out of town, the convoy continued pushing north toward Baghdad. A few hours later, as dawn approached, U.S. soldiers spotted Iraqis armed with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades about 1,000 yards from the road on each side.

The fight was on again.

With his convoy strung out for many miles behind him and his troops weary from almost 10 continuous hours of combat, Ferrell called in airstrikes. Within minutes, two more A-10s dropped eight 500-pound bombs and raked the Iraqi positions with cannon fire, setting two tree lines ablaze.

``It looks like `Apocalypse Now,''' Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael Keehan, Ferrell's senior enlisted tactical air controller, said with a look of pride.

The troops watching the burning tree lines could now see buildings among the trees. A man came running from one house, waving a white cloth and screaming that his family had been hurt.

He was told to bring his family to the road, where a medical team patched up a 4-year-old boy, a pregnant woman and two men, one in his late teens, the other in his 30s. All had shrapnel in their legs.

Dr. (Maj.) Todd Albright predicted a full recovery for all the victims except one man who would probably lose a foot. The family was driven away in an Iraqi ambulance.

Ferrell gave his troops two hours to catch their breath. He estimated his squadron had killed 150 Iraqi militia troops - not including those killed by the A-10s - with no casualties among his own soldiers.

The three Bradleys and two tanks that had made it across the bridge before it collapsed rejoined the squadron and the convoy continued its drive north, crossing the Euphrates and working its way up the eastern bank. A sickly yellow-gray fog filled with fine grit settled over a landscape of marshes and bogs and empty factories.

Iraqi forces appeared from around almost every corner, turning the morning and afternoon into a running firefight. At one point, the squadron commander's driver, Pfc. Randall Duke Newcomb, had to steer his Humvee with one hand and his knees while firing out the window.

The squadron captured three enemy soldiers before the Iraqis, perhaps using an anti-tank gun mounted on a truck, blasted the rear of two Abrams tanks, setting them ablaze. One driver was trapped inside his tank for several minutes before crawling to safety.

In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, nine Abrams tanks were damaged by mines but were repaired. No U.S. soldier has ever died in an Abrams.

As they settled in for the night, squadron members knew they had been lucky. But Baghdad was still 80 miles ahead, and the best of Saddam Hussein's troops were in the way.