WITH THE FIFTH MARINES, Iraq, April 10 (UPI) -- Marines in Baghdad were hunkering down for an expected tense night Thursday at the al-Azimiyah palace compound following fierce fighting earlier in the day against Iraqi soldiers and other gunmen.
The fighting began before dawn as the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, rolled down highways and streets in east Baghdad toward the 17-acre compound. One Marine was killed and 35 others were wounded in street battles against Iraqis firing automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades from bridges, roof tops, balconies and alleyways near the palace on the east bank of the Tigris River.
The exact number of attackers killed was not immediately available but more than a dozen bodies were seen on the streets.
The attackers appeared to be a mixed bag of forces -- men in army green, others wearing all black and some in civilian clothes. Marine intelligence sources told United Press International about a half dozen Syrians, Jordanians and Algerians had been detained Wednesday and were suspected of heading to Iraq to fight.
The presidential palace, built for the former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, is an ornate two-story structure that had been badly damaged by coalition airstrikes and was deserted. But as the Marines entered the 17-acre compound they came under fire from Iraqi gunmen.
Intense gunfire and rocketry lasted 4 1/2 hours before becoming sporadic.
As the Marines reached the palace, rocket propelled grenades began to rain down on their convoy. Three Marines were wounded when a grenade struck their armored vehicle, while they were firing at Iraqi forces. Another grenade struck the company's command vehicle but no one was injured.
"Hang in there kid. Keep thinking of your daughter that is about to be born," Capt. Jason Smith, commander of Bravo Company, told one of his Marines who had been severely wounded.
While the more seriously injured Marines were evacuated, Marines not seriously wounded rejoined the fight around the high-walled compound.
"This is the lousiest birthday, I've ever had," said Capt. Shawn Basco, an F-18 pilot attached to Bravo Company as a forward air controller.
"Happy birthday to me. Where's my cake?" he asked.
Basco, from Cleveland, braved enemy fire throughout the day and coordinated miracle evacuation flights while carrying the wounded to a grassy area near the compound's river-side swimming pool. The area was being used a helicopter loading area.
Only after the fighting died down did Basco notice the blood on his pants leg and the pain from a shrapnel wound. Basco was not evacuated.
By late afternoon Marines were establishing a perimeter defense and said they expected mortar and RPG attacks during the night.