A Daring Dash Across Desert

Times Staff Writer

They rolled across the roadless desert and left signs that said, "Route Hurricane," to those who followed. They passed over terrain where only Bedouins, with their small herds of sheep, lived in makeshift tents.

They were the soldiers of the Army's 2nd "Spartan" Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, who left Kuwait on Friday morning and, against all expectations, cut a western path across the desert and drove deep into Iraq.

By Sunday, the brigade's soldiers were within 100 miles of Baghdad after launching an audacious and risky 48-hour raid across forbidding desert.

And because of the maneuver, U.S. forces will be able to move much closer with air power, support and supplies for an expected siege against the Iraqi capital.

For two days, the brigade moved in secret. Much attention was centered on two other brigades sent into the southern reaches of the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, the age-old route of conquest through that agricultural cradle. Journalists traveling with the 2nd Brigade had to agree to describe its movements only in the vaguest of terms.

But Saturday afternoon, the Spartan Brigade broke out of its 250-mile desert odyssey and poured into the muddy flood plain of the Euphrates River, much farther north and west than Iraqi leaders could have expected.

They did it by building roads and bridges as they went, sometimes finishing only minutes before the lead elements of the 2,000-vehicle convoy arrived.

They dug out buckets of sand from the tanks' air intakes and swapped out new engines for those blown along the way. Supplies broke loose during the rough ride and tumbled onto the desert -- cases of water, a folding table that slid from a truck, an occasional ammunition case -- a small fortune of equipment that may never be recovered. Soldiers' faces were covered with powdery sand, making it look as if they had applied theatrical make-up. And at one point, the tanks separated from the rest of the column, racing ahead to cross even more territory.

"It wasn't a shortcut," said maintenance Sgt. Robert Smith, who followed the tanks and repaired them on the run. "It was sleep deprivation from hell."

The plan the Army tacticians hatched involved two stages for the Spartan Brigade. The first to leave were the brigade's engineers, whose task was to smooth a road across the desert. They were accompanied by infantry and cavalry troops who helped disperse what few Iraqi troops and tanks were along the border. They were followed by the main body of the convoy, made up of 200 heavily armed Abrams M1-A1 tanks, along with 2,000 trucks, graders, front-end loaders and trucks carrying instantly deployable bridge spans.

On Friday, after a start that seemed endless in its delays, the main body of the convoy passed into Iraq and began moving west, following the trail of the engineers, who marked the route with the "Route Hurricane" signs. Troops were posted at junctions as well to direct traffic.

Almost immediately, one vehicle hit a mine, its driver suffering shrapnel wounds to the face and neck. The column stopped while he was evacuated.

There was almost no sign of life, except a handful of small Bedouin households, whose children ran to the road to pick up meals-ready-to-eat and water bottles tossed by troops. Twice, a solitary truck drove by. One driver gave a "thumbs up" sign.

By midafternoon, the column had stopped for fuel, pulling precisely into lanes where it took eight minutes each to pump fuel at a rate as high as 60 gallons a minute. It was here that the brigade split up, with the high-speed tanks roaring out in front, while the rest of the convoy followed a long, circuitous course with sparse protection.

With an understated sobriety, Col. David Perkins, the commander of the brigade, warned before the column left last week that the maneuver would "pose significant command-and-control challenge, because the brigade is not meant to be split."

Perkins likened the task to Hannibal's drive of elephants across the Alps. And, as tankers love to do, he paraphrased Erwin Rommel, the World War II German tank commander, who believed that getting a few tanks in place quickly was better than delivering a lot of tanks to the battlefield later. "Well, we're going to get a lot of tanks there quickly," Perkins said.

The two units were reunited at the town of As Samaywah, south of the Euphrates. Remarkably, of the several hundred armored vehicles that made the trek, only three tanks and a Bradley fighting vehicle were knocked out of commission. But Smith's crews, and others, constantly battled to replace tracks thrown from tanks and solve puzzling breakdowns.

A U.S. troop presence at As Samaywah was a potential giveaway to Hussein's forces that the Army was not dedicating all its power to the Tigris-Euphrates Valley. Media were asked not to film the desert background because of its tip-off reddish hue and stark desolation as it tapers into the Euphrates plain.

Only on the final leg of the lightning run across the desert, when rain beat the sand into a paste thick as peanut butter, were there signs of the battles to come: an occasional pickup truck laden with Iraqis and their possessions, fleeing south past stark villages of stone houses and stony-faced residents.

As Samaywah was also the first place where there was major opposition. The 7th Cavalry skirmished there with a small group of paramilitaries, killing 45, according to military sources.

The column rolled north about 90 miles toward Najaf, where the objective was to set up an airfield for helicopters that could help attack the capital.

It was here that a small band of paramilitaries, believed to be members of Hussein's Arab Baath Socialist Party, began harassing cavalry and infantry elements trying to secure the road, said Lt. Col. Philip deCamp, commander of the brigade's 4th Battalion, 64th Armored Regiment.

The Spartan Brigade's heavy armor was called up, and it crawled up the road with lights out. Machine-gun fire with tracers arced toward the armored column, but fell short. Heavy booms echoed under a half moon. These were the brigade's first armored shots since the convoy set off. Until dawn, a standoff of sorts ensued in a muddy field near outlying settlements of the town. A Humvee drove up and down, playing one of a selection of "psychological operations" CDs, this one urging surrender to avoid any harm.

The standoff ended with the Abrams tanks firing their 120-millimeter cannons, eliminating a pocket of resistance behind a complex of bunker-like walls.

Amid it all, tanks herded a flock of sheep across a field. A mortar emplacement emptied its tubes with a series of booms, getting rid of unused shells -- a standard practice. The tanks soon revved up their jet-turbine engines, climbed back to the road and left.

Nearly everywhere it went, the Spartan Brigade met residents who seemed oddly detached, as if this war weren't about them, but some distant quarrel. "It's the strangest thing," said Capt. Steven Barry, commander of C Company, 4th Battalion. "People seem oblivious to the war."

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