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ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL REPORT

Iraq Journals

Glimpses of life in a war-torn country by GNS national security correspondent John Yaukey and photo director Jeff Franko.

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January 26, 2005

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January 25, 2005

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January 20, 2005

 

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Tuesday, April 1

Pace to Baghdad quickens for Marine artillery regiment

By John Bebow | The Detroit News

WITH 1st MARINE EXPEDITIONARY FORCE, Iraq - When he's not lobbing artillery volleys at Iraqis, Marine Cpl. Paul Camacho reads "Moby Dick" in his dirt trench. He's up to the part where Captain Ahab's crew embarks on their great whaling adventure.

After several slow days, the more than 50,000 Marines in Iraq are back on the hunt, too.

"We're pumped up now," said Camacho, 20, from Philadelphia, as his howitzer platoon readied Tuesday for its third thrust north in two days.

Marines spent Monday and Tuesday pushing en masse more than 40 miles north along a major highway leading to Baghdad.

The migration of troops, tanks, supplies and choppers resembled the harried buildup at the Kuwait border two weeks ago. Airplanes joined the traffic jam Tuesday afternoon. A C-130 loaded with a fresh supply of fuel was the first of several cargo planes to land on a section of road turned into a strategic landing strip about 75 miles from the Iraqi capital.

The thrust north is expected to continue throughout the week.

"Are you ready to go to Baghdad?" Col. John Pomfrett shouted at dusk, during a formation of his troops in Combat Service Support Group 11, which runs right behind Marine infantry units.

"HOOO-RAH!" the formation shouted in unison.

The new push is a staging operation, meant to probe the strength of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard and seek avenues of opportunity into Baghdad. The actual timing of a ground assault on Baghdad remains uncertain.

Any push into new territory is a welcome relief for impatient Marines, who heard just last weekend that they might sit on the desert fringe for three weeks, waiting for Army reinforcements.

"This is the happiest I've been in this God-forsaken country," said Cpl. Alvin Mattocks, 21, of San Diego.

Mattocks operates the next howitzer down from Camacho in the 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines, an artillery regiment from Twentynine Palms, Calif. Their platoon has played a key role in the war.

In the opening volley of the invasion, Mattocks, Camacho and company pounded Safwan Hill, a key Iraqi surveillance installation near the Kuwait border. Iraqi positions were leveled in an eight-hour artillery assault that troops and journalists later described as a massacre.

"I don't mean to sound cold," Camacho said, "But we know we're doing our jobs when people are dying from our rounds. That means we are saving Marines."

The howitzer team played a major role again last week during the sandstorm that covered much of southern and central Iraq. With American air power grounded, howitzers served as the biggest muscle to protect front-line troops from Iraqi tanks and artillery.

"When they gave us a firing mission that night, I thought they were crazy," Mattocks said.

Despite near-zero visibility, the platoon could still dial in their guns and obliterated several Iraqi tanks and an ammunition depot that night.

Tuesday morning, they were at it again, lobbing rounds over thousands of Marines to destroy five Iraqi troop bunkers. Iraqi casualties were confirmed.

Their rounds are a mix of high explosives and shells that releases 88 bomblets capable of tearing through tank armor. Their 21-foot-long M198 howitzers can hit targets up to 18 miles away.

"It's frustrating as hell not to actually see what we do," Mattocks said.

Their pride grows with each battle.

"Every once in a while, you see a spark on the horizon and realize they're shooting back at us," Camacho said. "But they haven't gotten anything anywhere near us."

The platoon sends its bombs down range with curses aimed at Saddam and the Republican Guard and painted messages on the sides of shells.

"This one's for you, Saddam," is a popular sentiment. So is a drawing of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.

Platoon members each threw $5 into a pool to guess when the war will end. The most optimistic prediction is April 15. The latest is Dec. 5.

Each howitzer has a name, of course. Staff Sgt. Rodney Jones, 34, from Monroe, La., works on one called "Last Call," illustrated with a drawing of an Absolut Vodka bottle and a martini glass.

Jones said he will not write a love note on a shell until he's sure it's one of the last ones the platoon will fire.

His message: "It's over. This round's on me."