Adversary's Tactics Leave Troops Surprised, Exhausted
Two hours later, as a platoon of Bradley Fighting Vehicles moved along the western edge of town sweeping for roadside bombs, Capt. Travis Van Hecke was awakened by a screeching radio in the office next to his room.
"We're hit," the voice screamed. The ambush with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades killed two soldiers, including the captain commanding the company.
"The group that came down here today was more accurate and a little more feisty than we have seen," said Van Hecke, 29, of Lomira, Wis. "Today this place just blew up."
Over the next few hours, groups of insurgents took over police stations in Buhriz and in the western district of Mufrek, where they killed seven Iraqi police officers.
Meanwhile, soldiers rushed the wounded from the ambushed Bradleys to a hospital across the city. A convoy carrying several wounded soldiers was ambushed several times by insurgents who appeared to be expecting them. Two Bradleys were disabled and had to be towed away.
By 9 a.m., the insurgents had seized three buildings on the eastern edge of the city near the soccer stadium. Bullimore said he tracked groups of men entering the buildings and taking up fighting positions inside. He called in an airstrike.
Minutes later, three 500-pound guided bombs fell through the buildings, collapsing them in heaps of rubble. Van Hecke's company, which had been ordered to secure the area around the stadium, picked through the sites. They found dozens of 50mm rockets, boxes of AK-47 ammunition and an array of mortars.
"It looked like he planned to fight there for a while," Bullimore said. "It was more than just a hit-and-run attack."
Early in the day, a group associated with Jordanian-born guerrilla Abu Musab Zarqawi asserted responsibility on Arabic-language satellite television channels for taking the police stations. But Bullimore, who said he thought people from outside the city may have organized the attacks, said the tactics did not fit the pattern of Zarqawi's past operations. Those allegedly include car bombings and the beheading of American businessman Nicholas Berg and South Korean translator Kim Sun Il.
By early afternoon, fighting in the streets had ebbed. After hours in tanks and Bradleys, in temperatures that reached 111 degrees, dozens of soldiers were feeling the effects of heat exhaustion. Many in Van Hecke's 115-man company received fluids intravenously.
Across several downtown blocks, damage was extensive. At the university, the scene of heavy fighting early in the day, glass from blown-out windows littered the campus. A group of people began looting the buildings when U.S. troops left the site, but they stopped once the troops returned.
In the early afternoon, Apache helicopters skipped over the city's edges, firing rockets that sent up columns of black smoke when they detonated. Bullimore said later that their target was a black sedan that had been carrying men wearing the insurgency's black uniforms.
Hours after the fighting calmed, only a few people had returned to the streets.
In recent weeks, young company and platoon commanders here have been told to prepare for the June 30 handover to the interim Iraqi government by giving the Iraqi police more authority on the streets. But the inability of the police to stand up to the insurgency Thursday will slow the process, soldiers said.
"That changeover is going to be a little tougher," said Van Hecke, a West Point graduate. "But I guess some can say the only reason they are doing these attacks is because we are here. There are two sides to every coin."
With only two hours of sleep over the past two days, Grider cleaned his M-4 rifle on the sofa of a common room as night fell. "Jeopardy" played on the television as he tested the infrared scope. He said he was on standby, prepared to lead his platoon out if called on later in the evening.
"I don't know what's going to happen," said Grider, a West Point graduate from Chicago. "You have to give Iraqis a chance to do it themselves. That's going to happen over the next few weeks, and they'll prove they can do it or our mission will stay pretty much unchanged."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company