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Wednesday, March 26

Clash with Republican Guard part of 'largest battle'

By Sean D. Naylor | Army Times

EAST BANK OF THE EUPHRATES RIVER, Iraq - A 3rd Infantry Division tank company team fought and destroyed an Iraqi Republican Guard force at point-blank range Tuesday night about 80 miles southwest of Baghdad.

The firefight came near the end of a running, 30-hour series of shootouts that the Pentagon is describing as the largest battle of the war. Pentagon officials have put the number of Iraqi troops killed by the 3rd Infantry at anywhere from 150 to 650.

No Americans were reported killed, although enemy fire destroyed two Abrams tanks and a Bradley fighting vehicle. The fighting came in the midst of a swirling, blinding sandstorm that grounded American scout and attack helicopters.

The sharp, short and violent gunfight with the Iraqi platoon was indicative of how the day went.

The Republican Guard troops rode in four Nissan pickup trucks, some of which probably had automatic weapons mounted on them, said Capt. Stu James, a company commander.

James' force of seven M1A1 tanks, two M2 Bradley fighting vehicles and five M113 armored personnel carriers was fighting to clear a lane for coalition forces.

``We attacked in zero visibility in a sandstorm last night,'' James said. ``We couldn't see the track in front of us. It doesn't get much worse than that. If we were in (our chemical suits and gas masks) it would have completed the triple double.''

At first James' mission to clear a lane was almost uneventful, with his armored force taking only sporadic small arms fire, which they answered with withering 7.62 mm coaxial machine gun fire. Enemy attacks, he said, were ``wildly sporadic.''

Then suddenly the four pickup trucks - which the troops call ``technicals'' after the similar pickup-mounted weapons used by Somalia militiamen - materialized in front of the U.S. troops. They were no more than 20 yards away.

``One technical was coming straight down the road,'' James said. ``He didn't see us coming. Another couple were sitting by the side of the road. I think they were just trying to weather out the storm.''

James' infantrymen blazed away at the trucks with machine guns and M-16 rifles from the top of the armored personnel carriers.

The Iraqi troops fought back with AK-47 assault rifles, but were overwhelmed by the Americans' firepower. Within minutes, James' force destroyed the four pickups and killed all the Republican Guard soldiers. ``We didn't take any prisoners,'' James said.

The captain said he didn't count the Iraqi corpses. However, his troops did hang around long enough to confirm they were Republican Guard soldiers. They knew them by the distinctive red triangular shoulder patches and red brassards they wore on their olive drab fatigues. One Republican Guard soldier was also carrying a gas mask, he said.

``I was very surprised to see they were Republican Guard,'' James said. ``I expected to see them working in bigger units. It's a very asymmetrical war at this point.''

It is a sign of how intense the combat has been for the 3rd Infantry Division so far in this war that James considered the firefight unremarkable.

``It was pretty benign operation, I thought,'' he said. ``But it was good wake-up call.''