- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2003

WITH THE 5TH MARINES, Iraq Iraqi armor and infantry were pummeled with air strikes and artillery fire yesterday after falling for a trap that lured the Iraqis into vacated U.S. positions in the central part of the country.

The armored unit, including Soviet-made tanks, were approaching vacated positions across the open desert when two Navy F-14 aircraft swooped down from a bright, clear sky the first after three days of fierce sandstorms and released laser-guided missiles and bombs.

Cobra helicopter gunships then buzzed in lower, firing Gatling guns and rockets. Plumes of smoke could be seen in the distance from the burning hulks.

Troops of 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, meanwhile, were attacking a regional airport about two hours away by slow-moving armored troop carrier. Two Marines were killed by small-arms fire. Word on Iraqi casualties was not immediately available.

"It was a feint and they fell for it," Gunnery Sgt. Ron Jenks of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, told United Press International.

"We really lit them up," added Capt. Shawn Basco, an F-18 pilot acting as a forward air controller for the company.

Earlier in the day, the Marines had vacated an area near a highway where militia had ambushed a Marine column. In a regiment-sized movement, the Marines took to the road and swung toward the airport to the northwest as if to attack it in force.

As hoped, the Iraqi tanks and infantry, which had been turned back Tuesday when they approached the column farther south, then moved in to exploit what they thought was a situation that would bring them in behind the Marines on the move.

The fighting yesterday was the culmination of a four-day march from the southern Rumeila oil fields, seized and secured by the Marines in the hours after the 5th Battalion became the first U.S. unit to enter Iraq at the start of the ground war to unseat Saddam Hussein and disarm Iraq.

Additional information could not be disclosed immediately for security reasons.

However, Marines had dug in last night, arrayed to repel and destroy any Iraqi attack.

The earlier Iraqi ambushes that began Tuesday afternoon resulted in minimal Marine casualties. A Navy medic died from mortar fire as he tended to a wounded comrade.

"Some of these guys must have gone to Fort Benning [Ga.] at one time or another," said Capt. Jason Smith, commander of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion. "The ambushes are right out of the book ambush, ambush again as the target either withdraws or moves forward to consolidate. They also have the road boxed in for the mortars."

The attackers, challenged by the 3rd Battalion, apparently came from a militia training school nearby. Their casualty figure was not immediately available. Some surrendered.

Though they have not endured a chemical-weapon attack in the dash into Iraq, the Marines are in their chemical-protection suits, gas masks in small bags attached to their belts. The suits slowly bake the Marines during hot days but at night offer help against muscle-cramping cold.

"OK, are we having fun yet? I know it's miserable, but we're all in the same boat. Keep your spirits up; keep your guard up," 1st Sgt. Bill Leuthe of Bravo Company told troops as he moved down the line of armored tracks carrying his charges. "I know it was cold last night, but so what. Heat up for MREs, guys. It will hit the spot." MREs are meals ready to eat.

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