Witnesses to a rough ride on road to Baghdad
Two journalists join a Marine convoy as it crosses from Kuwait into Iraq and encounters goatherds, prisoners - and resistance.
AN NASIRIYAH, IRAQ
At one intersection, a blonde British warrior knelt and set her sights on Iraqi goatherds being checked for firearms by her colleagues. The herders appeared bewildered as she lifted her rifle, smiled, and waved them on their way.
Meanwhile, Marines seized hundreds of prisoners Sunday, disarming them with rubber gloves and corralling them into barbed-wire holding pens.
Iraqi soldiers, stripped of their rifles, wandered along Route 80 Sunday as thousands of tanks, Jeeps, and artillery pieces swept north toward Baghdad. On this 24-hour drive from Kuwait City to the ancient city of An Nasiriyah, US and British forces are pressing toward the Iraqi capital.
But resistance intensified as coalition forces moved closer to Baghdad. Iraqi regular soldiers and civilians launched new attacks over the weekend in southern Iraq in an apparent effort to repel a wave of US armor not seen since the last Gulf War turned this road into what Iraqis still call "The Highway of Death." Iraqi TV reported fighting between Baath Party militias and US-British forces near the Shiite holy city of Najaf. The top Baath Party official there has reportedly been killed.
As of midday Sunday, coalition forces were facing stiff resistance around An Nasiriyah, and had suffered casualties. The Pentagon also confirmed that Iraqi forces had taken as many as 10 US personnel prisoner. The Arab news network Al Jazeera aired a tape showing several dead bodies in US military uniform.
Our journey began in Kuwait City Saturday afternoon as we devised a plan to circumvent Kuwaiti police and Army forces bent on keeping unescorted journalists from entering Iraq.
For six hours, we drove through twisting sand dunes until we managed to drive unnoticed into a massive wave of US armor headed in the direction of Iraq before slipping over the border with a contingent of US Marines. We trusted our security to Lt. Christina Bacelis-Bush from Ann Arbor, Mich., a Marine commander.
"Don't worry, sir, you are with the US Marines now," said Lieutenant Bacelis-Bush, hoarse from shouting at subordinates for three days running. "Intelligence reports have told us to expect resistance, but we are prepared."
Even as she spoke, Bacelis-Bush broke off, pulled a pistol, and walked down to confront a pair of curious Iraqi Bedouins.
As the soft, yellow dawn broke over the city of Basra, the flicker of burning oil wells silhouetted the line of green armor that ran for miles. On the edge of the city, five British Lynx helicopters flew low in the direction of billowing plumes outside of Iraq's largest port city.
British Lt. Richard Phillips described how several thousand troops had now put in place "a ring of steel" around Basra. "With some 8,000 troops on the perimeter, there may be no need to go inside," he said. "Everyone who passes us here on this dusty corner is happy to stop and shake hands. Most of them have white flags they are waving at us."
British military police said Sunday that they were actively still searching for the bodies of three missing journalists from Britain's ITN Television. On Saturday, Iraqi men ambushed the reporters' Jeeps as a lone cameraman dived for cover and survived the ordeal. Iraqi deserters along Route 80 said they knew nothing of the brutal attacks.
Most complained that they would have to walk for days without water to their homes. "The leaflets that fell from the sky said, 'Drop your gun and walk home to your family,' " said Mohammed Islah. "But I have five days to walk and nothing to eat or drink. Is this liberation?"
The black leather boots of several dead Iraqi soldiers could be seen along the highway, though the bodies that had once filled them were nowhere to be seen.
Meanwhile, wave after wave of allied armor swept inexorably northward. Massive US and British armor, including Abrams and Bradley tanks, heavy artillery, and hundreds of 50-caliber machine guns moved up the highway. It was unclear how many US forces would be left behind to tend to the prisoners, whose numbers have been fewer than predicted by Pentagon planners before the war started.
As we approached An Nasiriyah, Marine Lt. Dana Andrews brandished an M-16 and shouted to his forces to be on alert.
The lieutenant said his forces had not slept in days.
"The US and Great Britain have always been and still are the leaders of the free world," he added. "They have leaders who are not commanders or dictators, but people who lead by example."
Staff Sgt. Dan Rodriguez described how a day earlier, two Iraqis in civilian clothes had rolled up to a US tank and popped up with a grenade launcher to attack US forces. "This was basically a terrorist attack," he said. "But we are doing our best to guard against a repeat."
• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.