As an unidentified four-wheel-drive vehicle came barreling toward an intersection held by troops of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, Capt. Ronny Johnson grew increasingly alarmed. From his position at the intersection, he was heard radioing to one of his forward platoons of M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles to alert it to what he described as a potential threat.
"Fire a warning shot," he ordered as the vehicle kept coming. Then, with increasing urgency, he told the platoon to shoot a 7.62mm machine-gun round into its radiator. "Stop [messing] around!" Johnson yelled into the company radio network when he still saw no action being taken. Finally, he shouted at the top of his voice, "Stop him, Red 1, stop him!"
That order was immediately followed by the loud reports of 25mm cannon fire from one or more of the platoon's Bradleys. About half a dozen shots were heard in all.
"Cease fire!" Johnson yelled over the radio. Then, as he peered into his binoculars from the intersection on Highway 9, he roared at the platoon leader, "You just [expletive] killed a family because you didn't fire a warning shot soon enough!"
So it was that on a warm, hazy day in central Iraq, the fog of war descended on Bravo Company.
Fifteen Iraqi civilians were packed inside the Toyota, officers said, along with as many of their possessions as the jammed vehicle could hold. Ten of them, including five children who appeared to be under 5 years old, were killed on the spot when the high-explosive rounds slammed into their target, Johnson's company reported. Of the five others, one man was so severely injured that medics said he was not expected to live.
"It was the most horrible thing I've ever seen, and I hope I never see it again," Sgt. Mario Manzano, 26, an Army medic with Bravo Company of the division's 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, said later in an interview. He said one of the wounded women sat in the vehicle holding the mangled bodies of two of her children. "She didn't want to get out of the car," he said.
The tragedy cast a pall over the company as it sat in positions it had occupied Sunday on this key stretch of Highway 9 at the intersection of a road leading to the town of Hilla, about 14 miles to the east, near the Euphrates River. The Toyota was coming from that direction when it was fired on.
Dealing with the gruesome scene was a new experience for many of the U.S. soldiers deployed here, and they debated how the tragedy could have been avoided. Several said they accepted the platoon leader's explanation to Johnson on the military radio that he had, in fact, fired two warning shots, but that the driver failed to stop. And everybody was edgy, they realized, since four U.S. soldiers were blown up by a suicide bomber Saturday at a checkpoint much like theirs, only 20 miles to the south.
On a day of sporadic fighting on the roads and in the farms and wooded areas around the intersection, the soldiers of Bravo Company had their own reasons to be edgy. The Bradley of the 3rd Battalion's operations officer, Maj. Roger Shuck, was fired on with a rocket-propelled grenade a couple of miles south of Karbala. No one in the vehicle was seriously injured, but Shuck had difficulty breathing afterward and had to be treated with oxygen, medics said.
That happened after a column of M1 Abrams tanks headed north to Karbala in the early afternoon and returned a couple of hours later. Throughout the day, Iraqis lobbed periodic mortar volleys at the U.S. troops, and Iraqi militiamen and soldiers tried to penetrate the U.S. lines. Later, U.S. multiple-launcher vehicles fired rockets to try to take out the mortar batteries as AH-64 Apache helicopters swooped low over the arid terrain in search of other enemy gun emplacements.
It was in the late afternoon, after this day defending their positions, that the men of Bravo Company saw the blue Toyota coming down the road and reacted. After the shooting, U.S. medics evacuated survivors to U.S. lines south of here. One woman escaped without a scratch. Another, who had superficial head wounds, was flown by helicopter to a field hospital when it was learned she was pregnant.
Johnson said afterward that he initially suspected the driver might have been a suicide bomber, because he did not behave like others who approached the intersection.
"All the other vehicles stopped and turned around when they saw us," he said. "But this one kept on coming." Two days earlier, four 3rd Infantry Division soldiers were killed when a suicide bomber detonated explosives in his car at a checkpoint.
Lt. Col. Stephen Twitty, the 3rd Battalion commander, gave permission for three of the survivors to return to the vehicle and recover the bodies of their loved ones. Medics gave the group 10 body bags. U.S. officials offered an unspecified amount of money to compensate them.
"They wanted to bury them before the dogs got to them," said Cpl. Brian Truenow, 28, of Townsend, Mass.
[In Washington, the Pentagon issued a statement saying the vehicle was fired on after the driver ignored shouted orders and warning shots. The shooting, it said, is under investigation. According to the Pentagon account, the vehicle was a van carrying 13 women and children. Seven were killed, two were injured and four were unharmed, it said, without mentioning any men.]
To try to prevent a recurrence, Johnson ordered that signs be posted in Arabic to warn people to stop well short of the Bradleys guarding the eastern approach to the intersection. Before they could be erected, 10 people carrying white flags walked down the same road. They were seven children, an old man, a woman and a boy in his teens.
"Tell them to go away," Johnson ordered. But he reconsidered when told that the family said their house had been blown up and that they were trying to reach the home of relatives in a safer area.
"They look like they pose no threat at this time," one of the Bradley platoons radioed.
Johnson, a former Army Ranger who parachuted into Panama in 1989, fought in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and rose through the ranks, relented. He ordered his troops to tell the old man that the group could walk around the Bradleys.