A day after crossing the border from Kuwait, U.S. Army forces drove north toward Baghdad today, heading to what commanders said could be a decisive battle.
Units of the 3rd Infantry Division barreled deep into Iraq in several columns, one of which encountered resistance from Iraqi forces near the Tallil air base, 10 miles south of An Nasiriyah near the Euphrates River and about 100 miles northwest of the border. But other 3rd Infantry Division columns, speeding through the desert farther to the west, met no resistance as they pushed toward rendezvous points en route to the Iraqi capital, another 200 miles to the northwest.
Details of the movements were embargoed pending the units' arrival at their destinations. But Col. David Perkins, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade, said the plan of attack "can bring a quick closure to the war and may well convince [Iraqi] military leaders that it's a hopeless fight."
"We will try to force the regime to capitulate as quickly as possible with minimum damage to civilians," Perkins told reporters before sending his 5,000-member brigade across the Kuwait-Iraq border Thursday night as the spearhead of the U.S. campaign. "There is not a desire to destroy Iraq," said Perkins, 44, of Keene, N.H. "What we are going to do is liberate Iraq from a dictator." For soldiers of some units of the 3rd Division, the excitement of crossing the berm into Iraq after clearing the way with a heavy artillery bombardment gave way today to the monotony of a long road march through sparsely populated areas.
"I didn't even know it was a war until yesterday," said Pfc. Giovanni Criscione, 20, of Phoenix.
A member of a squad that was supposed to clear Iraqi observation posts on the border, he expressed disappointment that by the time his unit reached its objective, the soldiers found it had already been obliterated by artillery fire from 155mm Paladin self-propelled howitzers and were ordered to stay in their M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
Staff Sgt. David Fields, 38, of Lee's Summit, Mo., the commander of an M88 armored recovery vehicle in Bravo Company of the 2nd Brigade's 3rd Battalion, 15th Regiment, said today's road march, including maneuvers known as "refueling on the move" and driver exchanges while in motion, reminded him of a training exercise.
As the day began, the Bravo Company commander, Capt. Ronnie Johnson, 37, of Dallas, sought to keep his soldiers ready for combat.
"We can't have people sleeping outside their vehicles," he radioed to his lieutenants and sergeants. "It's not a sightseeing tour. Get your guys in the [expletive] vehicles."
One column dubbed "Rock 'n' Roll" -- flanking another code-named "Heavy Metal" -- passed U.S. cluster-bomb casings and old Iraqi tank revetments, remnants of the Persian Gulf War 12 years ago. In an abandoned village, only one wall of a large cinder-block building remained standing, its bomb-damaged silhouette resembling the facade of the Alamo. Nearby, the skeleton of a camel lay by the roadside
As they lumbered forward, the column's vehicles occasionally passed boxes of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) or bottled water that had bounced off supply trucks. Only a few Iraqi civilians were encountered, among them a Bedouin family gathered around a tent in the middle of nowhere a few hundred yards from the invasion route.
The convoy churned up so much dust that at times driving through it was like flying through a cloud. Drivers and gunners, their heads poking through hatches of armored vehicles and Humvees, turned a ghostly pale as they became coated with thick layers of fine, sandy dust.
Scout Humvees with .50-caliber machine guns and Mark 19 grenade launchers on their roofs screened the convoy on either side. AH-64 Apache helicopters flew up and down its length, skimming low over the arid landscape as they hunted for any attackers.
At one point, when two columns came together, one had to wait for more than an hour for the other to pass so that it could join the line. At an elaborate fuel stop, soldiers divided the column into three lanes marked with arrows and orange cones to speed the work of fuel tankers.
For one reason or another, the vehicles at times slowed to a crawl, inching forward at less than 10 mph and giving the impression of a particularly rough commute on I-95.
The only tense moment came when one platoon commander reported an Iraqi pickup truck heading toward him. With only yards to go before he had to decide whether to open fire, the driver displayed a white flag. On the whole, the road march was so uneventful that commanders lifted blackout restrictions and permitted vehicles to drive with their headlights on.
As night fell, the convoy's lights stretched south to the horizon as far as the eye could see.