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Convoys Rumble On at an Unyielding Pace

Columns push almost unimpeded northward across the Tigris and Euphrates valleys.

March 22, 2003|Geoffrey Mohan and Tony Perry | Times Staff Writers

WITH U.S. FORCES IN SOUTHERN IRAQ — The Humvees, tanks and trucks, stretched out to a horizon obscured by mammoth clouds of dust, roared north at a speed so steady, so relentless, that laggards risked being left behind.

Fanning out across the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys, the U.S. soldiers and Marines advanced virtually unimpeded Friday through a desolate landscape punctuated by burning oil rigs, busted enemy bunkers and the hoisted white flags of surrendering Iraqi forces.

One convoy from the 3rd Army's 2nd "Spartan" Brigade drove all day and all night, rumbling down "Route Hurricane," as the unpaved, two-lane path in the desert is being called. Military engineers spray-painted big red arrows on boards alongside the route to show the troops the way, and Bradley fighting vehicles were parked every few miles to protect the column.

The pace was unrelenting. Troops wolfed down food as they drove or rode. There were no bathroom stops. There was no time for that. The Americans' destination was just a dot on the map: Baghdad, where they could face Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard.

The Marines had punched through the border barrier early Friday as a final part of the offensive that saw 25,000 Marines push into southern Iraq and confront the Iraqi army's 51st Mechanized Division. Commanders later said the Iraqi division surrendered.

As their long trek began, Marines stopped off in the first town to be invaded, Safwan, where the mood resembled a ragged street carnival. Towing howitzers with names like Son of Sam and Cowboys From Hell, the Marines received the smiles and waves of bemused and slightly shell-shocked residents.

The Marines' armored convoy, with weapons that had spent hours pounding nearby Iraqi positions, passed into Safwan under an archway topped with a huge poster of a smiling Hussein.

They helped residents tear down the many pictures of the Iraqi president. Maj. David "Bull" Gurfein tried his hand at speaking to the crowd: "What do you think of Saddam?" Safwan is a Shiite town, and there is no love there for Hussein, whose Sunni Muslims rule the country.

In a scene that the Pentagon was undoubtedly eager to be disseminated around the world, some ran up to the howitzers, stomped on the ruins of the Hussein posters and posed for pictures with the Marines. When a Marine major tore down one poster, the Iraqis cheered and danced around him. "We really are here to liberate these people," said an earnest Lt. Col. John Broadmeadow.

But "liberation" became a looting spree for many of the 500 Safwan residents who tumbled into the dusty streets to see the U.S. forces. Men and women with babies in their arms broke into government offices and the local headquarters of Hussein's Arab Baath Socialist Party and carried off furniture, food, books, ceiling fans, light fixtures and trash baskets.

Safwan is the first Iraqi settlement north of the border along Highway 80, the main north-south road that runs from Kuwait into Iraq, with an interchange that connects to a freeway heading directly to the Iraqi capital.

The tiny town was the site in 1991 of the signing of a pact ending the Persian Gulf War. It is still littered with the hulks of personnel carriers and trucks used by the Iraqi military in that conflict, and many of its buildings are riddled with bullet holes. Ancient cars share the roads with mangy dogs and wretchedly poor families.

The U.S. had dropped leaflets telling the Iraqis to stay in their homes and not to fear the Americans. The freeway leading from Safwan was largely empty of cars except military convoys that passed the occasional Bedouin encampment, where children begged for food.

Along the way, Marines skirmished with Iraqi soldiers outfitted with Soviet-vintage tanks. Several Iraqis were killed, and about 280 surrendered.

"I think they're very glad to have it over," Lt. Col. Frederick Padilla said. "And we're very glad to have them alive."

The day wasn't without cost for the U.S. forces: Two Marines were killed in one of several brief firefights early in the invasion.

The initial phase of the ground war focused on hitting or seizing key economic targets such as oil fields; controlling Iraq's sea access and cutting borders; destroying Hussein's ability to communicate with his forces; and psyching out the Republican Guard to encourage mass defections.

In the southwest, British troops and U.S. Marines, after sealing off the Al Faw peninsula, captured Umm al Qasr, Iraq's only port on the Persian Gulf, stamped out pockets of resistance in sporadic firefights and then raised an American flag over the town. (The Pentagon later ordered the Stars and Stripes removed.)

Umm al Qasr, as the gateway to all of Iraq's maritime trade, is considered vital to the country's economic future, and the invading forces want to use the port for resupply and the transport of humanitarian aid.

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