The townspeople were in the middle of an impromptu celebration, cheering and clapping and whistling for the American soldiers who only hours before had marched through the center of this holy city. Then the shots rang out.
"Small-arms fire! Get your heads down!" Lt. Col. Marcus DeOlivera shouted to his soldiers. "Watch those rooftops!"
The Army convoy jerked to a halt along the main road of Najaf. People fled the sidewalks. A man was so startled he fell off his bicycle. The 50 or so infantry riflemen of the 101st Airborne Division took cover behind their Humvees and scanned the rooftops through their weapons' sights.
A blue car sped from behind a building. Two Iraqis leaned out the front windows, pointing Kalashnikov rifles toward the convoy.
"He's coming for us!" DeOlivera screamed. "Take him out! Hit the car! The blue car! Now!"
The soldiers of 1st Battalion of the 327th Infantry Regiment started firing: M-4s, 50-caliber machine guns, a Mark-19 grenade launcher. The bullet-pocked car crashed into a pole, smoking, the men inside dead and slumped atop each other.
For a moment, the city fell quiet. But soon came U.S. attack helicopters and the Hellfire missiles and the explosions that shook the ground as the Army destroyed the area from which the car had come. It was a suspected weapons cache.
Then the convoy rolled on, and the people returned to the sidewalks, smiling and giving the soldiers the thumbs-up sign.
The violent flurry Wednesday afternoon culminated a dramatic day in the historic, central Iraq city of Najaf. After three days of biting around the edges of the city--storming and capturing a university, several military compounds and a factory--the 101st Airborne made a show of force just after dawn, marching for more than 5 unopposed miles through the city center with more than 130 heavily armed soldiers.
Still, for all the symbolism of having soldiers walk through the center of an Iraqi city and even being warmly welcomed along the route, the convoy ambush later in the day revealed how committed some of Saddam Hussein's most loyal fighters are and how fragile the control of the volatile nation really is.
Late Wednesday, despite three days of almost constant aerial bombings of suspected militia strongholds and weapons storage facilities, paramilitary elements remained firmly rooted in Najaf while elements of the 101st Airborne continued to search for them. During a raid on a building from which snipers had been firing, soldiers found detailed maps of troop locations throughout the city and the kind of technology that many had believed the Iraqis did not possess, including night-vision goggles.
"Would I say that we now have the city firmly in hand?" DeOlivera asked. "No, I don't think I would go that far. But I would say it's certainly more in hand today than it was yesterday. And today has been one hell of a day."
The mission assigned to Alpha Company on Wednesday morning was simple: About 130 men--the company plus a scout team and a sniper team--would walk nearly 6 miles through town to show the residents of Najaf that America was there. No one used the word "liberate," but that was clearly the mood.
"It's pretty cool when you know people are happy to see you," said Staff Sgt. Scott Miller. "It makes you feel like you are doing what you are supposed to be doing."
Carrying anti-tank missiles and grenade launchers, the soldiers set out in two long lines, one on either side of the four-lane road that cuts through Najaf.
Townspeople awed at first
The soldiers passed Noor Al Husaeen Hotel and Ain Ali Restaurant and Dar Al Auda Guesthouse. They passed women carrying cartons of eggs and children who imitated the American military salute. They passed blown-out buildings and bombed-out cars and local men walking with their hands in the air to show they had no gun.
Two attack helicopters flew low over the soldiers.
A Humvee broadcast a constant message in Arabic over loudspeakers. "Entebah, entebah, entebah," it began, "Attention, attention, attention." The message then went on to tell people that the U.S. military meant them no harm.
At first as the soldiers walked, townspeople seemed too in awe to do anything. But after a while, local people became bolder. They rushed to the soldiers, gesturing and speaking excitedly to them in a language none of the soldiers could understand.
"I think they are happy to see me," said Pvt. Jim Strohm. "They look happy anyway."
The walk through Najaf, one of the holiest cities in the Muslim faith because it is the burial site of Imam Ali, the Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law and the martyr of the Shiite sect of Islam, was the brainchild of Col. Ben Hodges, the commanding officer of the 1st Brigade of the 101st.
He hoped it would show the people of Najaf that the coalition forces were truly committed to helping them rid their town of oppressive elements of Hussein's Baathist regime. It is a difficult goal, in light of the fact the town has never forgotten how the U.S. encouraged it to revolt against Hussein after the 1991 Persian Gulf war and then did not step in when the regime pummeled the resistance with brute force, assassinations and destruction.
"Having a boot on a ground and a face you can see makes far more of an impact than a tank that tears everything up carrying anonymous soldiers," Hodges said.
Assault weapons found
But not all of Wednesday's mission was goodwill. Just beyond Saddam Square at the center of town, the soldiers set up an attack formation while engineers blew a hole in the wall of a vegetable market. The soldiers stormed the market, which was almost empty, and searched several buildings that were suspected of containing weapons. Dozens of mortar rounds and AK-47 assault rifles were found. While there, the soldiers tore down an Iraqi national flag.
Still, because there had been no resistance other than a donkey that brayed angrily in the center of the market complex, the soldiers joked about the assignment before returning to their march through town, a march that was now accompanied by the calling out of noon prayers from a nearby mosque.
"There was a guy carrying garlic, so we considered him a hostile," 1st Lt. J.C. White said.
Toward the end of the march, the soldiers took some small-arms fire from a wooded area. No one was injured, and the sniper was never spotted.
Residents in that section of town hurried up to soldiers to warn them of other dangers.
"The school over there," said one man who could speak English, "Be careful. Bad men in there."
At several points, the soldiers had to wave off the civilians who soon were swarming around them, especially little boys. One boy on a bike offered cans of soda to the soldiers.
"We are so happy. We are so confident," said Mahdi Al-Murthda, a Najaf doctor who was eating at Wilayat Ali Restaurant. "This is the last day for Saddam."
Hussein's fighters, at least in Najaf, are tenacious. They have taken to hiding weapons and themselves inside holy sites that the Army says it will not bomb. On Wednesday, two attack helicopters destroyed an armored personal carrier, an air defense radar and an air defense gun from an amusement park on the edge of town.
The march through Najaf ended on the north side of the city. The soldiers occupied a textile factory. As they explored the complex, DeOlivera found a structure with deluxe sleeping quarters, probably for the owner of the factory.
It was just about an hour after the march that the convoy retraced the very path the foot soldiers had taken. Halfway through the trip the small-arms fire ripped through the center of the convoy, separating the first vehicles from the ones in the rear. Two soldiers were shot, one in the leg, one in an arm and a leg. Both were doing well late Wednesday.
Hodges, the brigade commander, was clearly nervous as the events were unfolding. When he could not reach the first three cars on a radio to determine everyone in them was alive, he began to tug on his left ear until he made it bleed.
After the blue car attacked the convoy, Hodges believed he knew where the fire was coming from. Information earlier in the day from several local people was that the municipal parking lot was being used to hide weapons.
An aerial reconnaissance mission just a few hours before had shown vehicles with guns in them.
`Tax dollars at work'
Within a couple minutes of the gunfire, Apache helicopters arrived. In the course of less than 30 seconds they rapidly fired almost a dozen Hellfire missiles. By now more relaxed, sure the situation was back under control, Hodges pulled out a cigar and lighted it as he watched the missile firing.
"That's your tax dollars at work," he said.
The parking lot was soon in flames, creating a cloud of thick smoke that settled over the entire city. The thunder of secondary explosions from the ammunition that had been hit by the missiles lasted more than 30 minutes.
Moments later the convoy was rolling again. Almost immediately the crowds were back on the streets, cheering. Many pointed to the parking lot that was still smoking and gave the thumbs-up sign.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times