WITH THE FIFTH MARINES, Iraq, March 20 (UPI) -- Dawn broke over the al-Ramallah oil fields of southern Iraq Friday to plumes of billowing smoke from torched wells and destroyed Iraqi military positions and the sight of Iraqi soldiers surrendering by the score.
The Gas Oil Separation Plant 10 kilometers (6 miles) north of the Kuwaiti border was burning fiercely in two places, set alight in an apparent scorched earth move by the Saddam Hussein regime.
Elsewhere on the horizon, at least four natural gas facilities were spewing flame and smoke in the distance.
The facility, referred to on Marine Corps maps as GOSP-3, was the prime objective of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, of the 5th Marine Regimental Combat Team, which crossed the border Thursday night at 1730 GMT (8:30 p.m. local/1230 pm EST) in armored assault vehicles. It suffered less than a half-dozen casualties and none of the wounds was life threatening.
Pushing though the border line from LD (line of departure Florida), the Marines had to move through a narrow 5-km path - the Kuwait border berm, a tank ditch, an electric fence and then the Iraqi border berm. The task was made easier by vanguard that destroyed the obstructions hours earlier.
To a crescendo of distant explosions from U.S. aircraft doing what they do best, the Marines split into several columns and raced to their objectives.
"It's a good day to be a Marine," one man yelled in his 26-ton vehicle.
"They put up some minor resistance, kind of a show of face, I guess, and then surrendered," Staff Sgt. Gregory Craft said.
Craft said his unit took six prisoners in the inky black night while searching trenches, eerily illuminated by the burning remnants of an artillery battery vaporized by laser guided bombs from planes.
A small number of tanks were also engaged, but did not fire back. The Iraqis had abandoned them and fled.
With the coming of dawn, a dribble of disheveled Iraqi troops began leaving their foxholes on the south side of the gas and oil plant in groups of three and four, waving makeshift white flags as they approached 1st Battalion troops. Before an hour had passed, they were coming out in larger groups.
In the first two hours of Friday morning, more than 159 Iraqis had surrendered and more were continuing to approach U.S. troops, turning themselves in.
"Wsearch 'em, search 'em for weapons, never mind the mementos and papers for now," Lt. Dave Denials, commander of the company's 1st platoon told his men. "And keep each other covered."
The prisoners, ranging from teenagers to older men, appeared thankful to turn themselves over. Many asked for food and water, which they would be given when taken to positions in the rear.
"Hey, look, they're forming lines themselves," said Lance Cpl. Gregory Moll, looking at the detainees. "It looks like they've done this before.
"They all look so dirty, tired and hungry."
The attack Thursday night launched the ground war to topple Saddam and disarm him of suspected weapons of mass destruction. It came after troops spent two days in forward positions along the border, practicing the attack but also taking time out to listen to President George W. Bush on the radio announce the start of hostilities.
That start was readily apparent to them. As the president spoke, aircraft streaked overhead, heading north to Iraq.
The Marines of the 1st battalion suffered no casualties in the skirmishes and busied themselves Friday further securing the GOSP.
Details of their next objective cannot be disclosed for reasons of operational security.