WITH THE 5TH MARINES, Iraq, March 27 (UPI) -- An Iraqi armored unit and infantry troops were pummeled with airstrikes and artillery fire Thursday after falling for a trap that lured the Iraqis into vacated U.S. positions in central part of the country.
The armored unit, including Soviet-made tanks, were approaching vacated positions across the open desert when two Navy F-14 aircraft swooped down from a bright, clear sky -- the first after three days of vicious dust storms -- and released laser-guided missiles and bombs.
Cobra helicopter gunships then buzzed in lower, firing Gatling guns and rocket launchers.
Plumes of smoke could be seen in the distance from the burning hulks.
Troops of 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, meanwhile, where attacking a regional airport about two hours away by slow-moving armored troop carrier. Two Marines were killed by small arms fire. Word on Iraqi casualties was not immediately available.
"It was a feint and they fell for it," Gunnery Sgt. Ron Jenks of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, told United Press International.
"We really lit them up," added Capt. Shawn Basco, an F-18 pilot acting as a forward air controller for the company.
Earlier in the day the Marines had vacated an area near a highway where militia had ambushed a Marine column. In a regiment-sized movement, the Marines took to the road and swung toward the airport to the northwest as if to attack it in force.
As hoped, the Iraqi tanks and infantry, which had been turned back Tuesday when they had approached the column farther south, then moved in to exploit what they thought was a situation that would bring them in behind the Marines on the move.
The fighting Thursday was the culmination of a four-day march from the southern al-Ramallah oil fields, seized and secured by the Marines in the hours after the 5th Battalion became the first U.S. units to enter Iraq at the start of the ground war to unseat Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and disarm Iraq of its suspected weapons of mass destruction.
Additional information on the movement and operation could not be immediately disclosed for reasons of protecting the security of ongoing operations.
However, Marines had dug in Thursday night, arrayed to repel and destroy any Iraqi attack.
The earlier Iraqi ambushes that had begun Tuesday afternoon, resulted in minimum Marine casualties. One person killed was a Navy medic, who died from mortar fire as he tended a wounded comrade.
"Some of these guys must have gone to Fort Benning (Ga.) at one time or another," said Capt. Jason Smith, commander of Brave Company, 1st Battalion. "The ambushes are right out of the book -- ambush, ambush again as the target either withdraws or moves forward to consolidate.
"They also have the road boxed in (preset) for the mortars."
The attackers, challenged by the 3rd Battalion, apparently came from a militia training school nearby. Their casualty figure was not immediately available, but some had surrendered.
As 3rd Battalion Marines repelled the attack and hunkered down for the night, artillery further to the rear pounded enemy positions. Airstrikes were not possible because of a raging dust storm that turned day into an eerie twilight world, in which visibility was sometimes reduced to less than 10 feet.
A hard rain in the night compacted the dust in the early morning, increasing visibility, but a strong wind continued to blow.
Late Tuesday afternoon, the wind was blowing at about 45 knots.
"This is miserable. This has got to be the ass-end of the world," Lance Cpl. Gregory Moll, from Harrisburg, Pa., commented. "It's so unreal."
The storm was not a sandstorm but a dust storm. Once part of the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia, the area where the Marines were had once been marshland. Saddam began draining it in the late 1970s. The result: a moonscape, covered with inches and inches of soft, fine dust and what was once silt.
Senior offices in the column said the attacks by militia included attempts to penetrate Marine defenses with pickup trucks armed with machine guns. About a half dozen Iraqi army T-72 tanks tried to join in the fighting by moving down the highway Tuesday night, but withdrew after the Marines' 155mm artillery gave them a deadly welcome.
For reasons of operational security, additional details on the location of the Marines and their objectives could not be immediately disclosed. But since seizing and securing parts of the al-Ramallah oil fields in the south, near the Kuwait border, the 5th Marines have rolled more than 125 miles into the country.
Although it has not suffered a chemical-weapon attack in its dash into Iraq, the Marines are in their chemical protection suits, gas masks in small bags attached to their belts. During the hot days, the suits slowly bake the Marines, but at night offer a bit of help against muscle-cramping cold.
The Marines' distance from Baghdad cannot be disclosed for security reasons. But it is tantalizingly close.
"OK, are we having fun yet? I know it's miserable, but we're all in the same boat. Keep your spirits up, keep your guard up," 1st Sgt. Bill Leuthe of Bravo Company told troops as he moved down the line of armored tracks carrying his charges.
"I know it was cold last night, but so what. Heat up for MRE's, guys.. It will hit the spot."