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Thursday, April 3

Idling truck yields Iraqi bodies, hand tools

By John Bebow | The Detroit News

NEAR THE TIGRIS RIVER, Iraq - One man's death ride is another man's U-Haul, the Marines conclude.

The five Marines and their Iraqi-American translator jump in two Humvees and backtrack several miles to where they had spotted the Iraqi Army truck early Thursday morning.

Warrant Officer Sean Collins and Maj. David Cooper step past the bodies by the side of the road and size up the tall tan truck still idling near a dry canal.

"You can never have enough bed space," Collins says, envisioning a new way to haul meals and bullets up the road toward Baghdad.

The Iraqi soldiers had plastered mud over the headlights to cloak themselves at night.

"That's field-expedient," Cooper observes, saying that is the way to do it if you don't have any dark tape.

The fuel tank is full. The odometer on the Russian-made truck reads "11,345.5 km." Out by the road, the Iraqi-American translator surveys the damage from that last tenth of a kilometer.

Two young men and an older one with male-pattern baldness lay in a line in their olive uniforms. The translator, a resident of Dearborn, Mich., who, out of fear of Iraqi retaliation, would only give his name as Arka, pulls back the jacket covering one dead soldier's face. He recoils at the blood and dirt and flies oozing from the soldier's mouth.

"It's very bad. His family waits for him," says Arka, who signed up with the Marines to help free the homeland that he hadn't seen in more than a decade from Saddam Hussein's rule.

Out at the truck, the Marines figure the Iraqis were hit both front and back, maybe by an American attack helicopter sometime the night before.

Some sort of missile left helmet-sized holes in the tailgate and the back of the driver's side of the cab. Bullets fired from the front shattered the windshield. Dozens of other clean bullet holes - looking just like those magnets some Americans affix to the back of their cars - pock the rest of the truck body.

Inside the cab, there is no blood, only bits of glass. The Iraqi soldiers must have been cut down in the field while trying to flee and then searched and stacked.

The Marines brush aside the glass and study a leaking front tire. They cover the truck's Iraqi Army markings in tan paint, spray-paint "USMC" in black on the sides, and find a bag of tools in the back.

"I'm all over these like a bum on a bologna sandwich," Collins says, sifting through the worn wrenches.

Search interrupted

Suddenly, two Marines crouch and level their M-16s as Arka stops two vans of Iraqi civilians moving west down the road. An old man with a droopy eye gets out and points through the bright white sleeves of his robe toward a spot somewhere beyond a berm to the north.

Cooper strides over and urges Arka to tell the civilians to move on to the next Marine checkpoint.

"They say they cannot get to their homes," Arka tells Cooper. "I tell them to stay in their house. I don't want to see more people die. I tell them don't be close to the Army."

"Don't stop civilians," Cooper says as the Iraqis drive away. "We don't have security."

Arka urges the Marines to pay attention to the dead bodies, not the truck.

"I am sure this makes a bigger problem with the people if they see" the bodies, Arka says.

"I know, but we can do nothing for them," Cooper replies, telling Arka the bodies will remain on the ground until civilians or Marines in a larger convoy bury them. "We don't have the resources to do anything about it."

Truck won't make it

Back at the truck, someone accidentally hits a kill switch. The engine won't turn over and the warrant officer struggles to hot-wire it with two screwdrivers. As work under the hood continues, Arka walks to a fourth body 50 yards up the road.

The slight soldier is shot in both shins and dried blood cakes his face. Arka looks at a few rocket-propelled grenades on the ground behind the body then crosses the road to sift through a pile of belongings.

Among them is a yellow bag, a picked-over humanitarian ration that reads, "Food gift from the people of the United States."

"Why do you stay in the truck?" Arka mutters to the dead soldiers as he rummages through their clothes and cassette tapes. "Why don't you leave?"

He kicks at a radio battery and a sandal.

"It's very hot today," Arka says, and turns toward the shade of his Humvee.

The Iraqi truck is running again, but duct tape won't hold a leaking air hose and the brakes are locked.

"So close, man, so close," Collins says. The Marines jump back in their Humvees.

"It's a good truck," Arka says as they drive away. "It died with its people."