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ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL REPORT

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Friday, April 4

Marines ride cover fire north to Baghdad outskirts

By C. Mark Brinkley | Marine Corps Times

NEAR BAGHDAD, Iraq - U.S. Marines rode a dramatic barrage of artillery fire to within 10 miles of Baghdad's city limits Friday.

As combat teams from the 1st Marine Division pushed north, artillery units from the 11th Marine Regiment poured 155 mm high-explosive rounds onto targets outside the city.

The cover fire came in the form of a "regimental 33," in which every howitzer in the regiment shoots 33 rounds, one after the other, in the space of about an hour.

For that hour, Marines rained nearly 30 shells per minute on two Iraqi tank battalions and an artillery battalion.

With that kind of protection, plus supporting air strikes, U.S. tanks and other armored vehicles from Regimental Combat Team 5 and RCT-7 streamed north on Iraq's highways all day, pushing to outside the city limits by nightfall.

The fighting picked up as the units moved toward the capital, with sporadic gunfire breaking out all along the route.

The damage to Iraq's army could be seen everywhere: Dead bodies lying along the road at checkpoints, burning tank hulls, abandoned anti-aircraft guns.

Iraqis streamed alongside the convoy's path, hoping to catch a packet of food - a humanitarian assistance ration - or pieces of a Marine's breakfast.

Near the city, a huge poster of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein overlooked what used to be a towering statue of him. The figure's legs and a flailing arm were all that remained. The rest of the statue was reduced to melted pieces of rubble.

Intelligence reports had indicated that non-Iraqi volunteers formed impromptu military units along the Baghdad route. Those forces resorted to hiding in the tree lines and taking sniper shots at convenient targets.

As the Marines move closer to Baghdad, there is an energy among the troops not seen in recent days. There is pause as well, as they ready themselves for a potentially intense series of battles for the city.

"I'm glad to be this close to getting this over with,'' said Capt. Ross Monta, 30, commander of Battery M, 3rd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment. "I'm apprehensive - I know there are some better units up here,'' said the Marine from Slickville, Pa. "But it's good to be getting close to ending this thing.''