Rockets, Shrapnel Rain on Iraqi Targets in One of Fiercest Barrages : Assault: A new high-tech system allows U.S. tracked vehicles to launch missiles and make a fast getaway.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

American troops call it "steel rain." The Iraqis probably call it hell.

For the past week, U.S. artillery batteries have launched hundreds of shrieking, fiery rockets at enemy positions in southern Iraq. Each 12-foot rocket explodes into a deadly shower of 644 bomblets, each of which then shatters into 600 pieces of shrapnel that rip into artillery, buildings and "soft targets," military-speak for human beings.

"I prefer not to say we are killing other people," said Capt. Richard Nichols, commander of Bravo Battery, 6th Field Artillery. "I prefer to say we are servicing a target."

In a grim prelude to a possible ground war, U.S. and British gunners "serviced" scores of targets up to 25 miles inside Iraq on Thursday, launching one of the fiercest barrages of the war so far. They pounded suspected Iraqi armor, infantry and artillery positions, air defense systems, combat engineers' equipment, and at least one command-and-control center at the brigade or battalion level, artillery officers said.

British "Desert Rats" fired more than 1,300 shells from huge howitzers--their largest attack yet. And U.S. Army crews fired hundreds of rockets from at least four batteries of multiple launch rocket systems, the Pentagon's newest and most sophisticated artillery system.

As with other high-tech weapons, from Patriot missiles to Stealth fighters, the Persian Gulf War is the combat debut for the MLRS. After firing 12 computer-guided rockets from a box on their roof, the tracked armored vehicles can be driven off before opposing radar can lock onto the position and return fire. Troops call it "shoot and scoot."

"You go in, you shoot, you get out," said Pvt. Jim Hooks, 20, of Memphis, Tenn. "By the time they figure out where you are, you're gone."

But not before you're nearly fried. Flames from the rockets engulf the vehicle's sealed cab, and thick cordite fumes fill the air as the ground itself rocks from the blast and a fiery plume fills the sky.

"Yee hah!," shouted Specialist David Langston, of Garland, Tex., as his battery fired more than 1,000 MLRS rockets and howitzer rounds earlier this week. "Saddam, you didn't know what you got yourself into, buddy."

Once activated, the MLRS spews one round every 4.2 seconds until it empties two "six-packs," as gunners call a full compliment of 12 rockets.

"This is the most revolutionary development in artillery since the breech loader," said Lt. Col. Scott Linganselter, an artillery executive officer. "It is the most feared artillery rocket in the world. They will go exactly where we tell them to go."

He said the rockets could devastate Iraqi artillery. "We put a six-pack on an enemy battery location, and we will make that sucker go to Allah," he said. "It will be all over."

Other gunners, however, took little joy in the fierce death and destruction they were raining on an unseen and largely unknown enemy.

"I never liked sending rockets downrange," said Sgt. Joe Peveto Jr., 24, of Orange, Tex. "We know it's causing a lot of damage. I feel for the guys that are catching it. I really do."

"I feel like we're in a sterile environment," agreed Sgt. Michael Gilmartin, 32, of Wichita, Kan., as he sat inside a command armored personnel carrier. "We're firing, but we're not taking any incoming."

Minutes before the launchers opened fire less than two miles from the Iraqi border Thursday, two explosions blasted plumes of black smoke from a high sand berm across the border. An officer said the explosions were either off-target incoming rounds, or charges placed by U.S. engineers to blow holes in the sand berm for allies to use in a ground offensive.

But Iraqi artillery fire was sporadic at best. Staff Sgt. Anthony Zarillo, 30, of Brooklyn, N.Y., said the return fire was "so slow that we could get three missions in. They can't cue in on us. I don't know if we knocked out all the good stuff or what."

Col. Jim Gass, 49, an artillery commander, said he would welcome Iraqi fire to help pinpoint their positions. "We hope we do get return fire," he said.

But not too much. The relentless shelling has taken a toll on the high-tech MLRS. Breakdowns are numerous, and several rockets have misfired. After a week in combat, each MLRS now requires four hours a day of maintenance.

"The rockets wear it down," Gilmartin explained.

This story was compiled from pool reports subject to review by military censors.

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