NAJAF, Iraq — One of his friends was dead, 12 others lay wounded and the four soldiers still left standing were surrounded and out of ammunition. So Salvadoran Cpl. Samuel Toloza said a prayer, whipped out his knife and charged the Iraqi gunmen.
In one of the only known instances of hand-to-hand combat in the Iraq conflict, Cpl. Toloza stabbed several attackers swarming around a comrade. The stunned assailants backed away momentarily, just as a relief column came to the unit’s rescue.
“We never considered surrender. I was trained to fight until the end,” said the 25-year-old corporal, one of 380 soldiers from El Salvador whose heroism is being cited just as other members of the multinational force in Iraq are facing criticism.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said recently that the Central American unit has “gained a fantastic reputation among the coalition” and expressed hope that the Salvadorans will stay beyond their scheduled departure.
Phil Kosnett, who leads the Coalition Provisional Authority office in this holy Shi’ite city, says he owes his life to Salvadorans who repelled a well-executed insurgent attack on his three-car convoy in March. He has nominated six of them for the U.S. Army’s Bronze Star medal.
“You hear this snotty phrase ‘coalition of the billing’ for some of the smaller contingents,” said Mr. Kosnett, referring to the apparent eagerness of some nations to charge their Iraq operations to Washington. “The El Sals? No way. These guys are punching way above their weight. They’re probably the bravest and most professional troops I’ve every worked with.”
The Salvadorans are eager to stress their role as peacekeepers rather than warriors, perhaps with an eye toward public opinion back home. Masked protesters last week seized the cathedral in the capital, San Salvador, demanding that President-elect Tony Saca pull the troops out of Iraq.
Mr. Saca, who takes office June 1, has said that he will leave the unit in Iraq until August as had been planned, despite the early departure of Spanish troops, under whom the Salvadorans were serving. The other three Central American contingents — from the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Honduras — have returned home or are scheduled to do so soon.
“We didn’t come here to fire a single shot. Our rifles were just part of our equipment and uniforms. But we were prepared to repel an attack,” said Col. Hugo Omar Orellana Calidonio, a 27-year-old who commands the Cuscatlan Battalion.
The troops, El Salvador’s first peacekeepers abroad, have conducted a range of humanitarian missions in Najaf. They have provided books, electricity, playground equipment and other supplies to destitute schools and have helped farmers with irrigation works and fertilizer supplies.
“Our country came out of a similar situation as in Iraq 12 years ago, so people in El Salvador can understand what is happening here,” said Col. Calidonio, referring to the civil war between the U.S.-backed government and leftist guerrillas that left about 75,000 dead. The military was held responsible for widespread abuses.
“We came here to help and we were helping. Our relationship with the people was excellent. They were happy with what we were doing,” Col. Calidonio said.
Then came April 4, when armed followers of Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr, a radical Shi’ite cleric, seized virtual control of the city and staged attacks on two camps — Baker and Golf — near bases on the fringes of Najaf occupied by the Salvadoran and Spanish units.
When Cpl. Toloza and 16 other soldiers arrived that morning at a low-walled compound of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, about a mile from their camp, they found that its 350 occupants had melted away. They also found themselves trapped by Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.
Lt. Col. Francisco Flores, the battalion’s operations officer, said the surrounded soldiers held their fire for nearly a half-hour, fearful of inflicting civilian casualties, even as 10 of their number were wounded by rocket-propelled grenades and bullets from assault rifles and machine guns.
After several hours of combat, the besieged unit ran out of ammunition, having come with only 300 rounds for each of their M-16 rifles. Pvt. Natividad Mendez, Cpl. Toloza’s friend for three years, lay dead, shot twice probably by a sniper. Two more were wounded as the close-quarters fighting intensified.
“I thought, ‘This is the end.’ But, at the same time, I asked the Lord to protect and save me,” Cpl. Toloza recalled.
The wounded were placed on a truck while Cpl. Toloza and the three other soldiers moved on the ground, trying to make their way back to the base. They were soon confronted with Sheik al-Sadr’s fighters, about 10 of whom tried to seize one of the soldiers.
“My immediate reaction was that I had to defend my friend, and the only thing I had in my hands was a knife,” Cpl. Toloza said.
As reinforcements arrived to save Cpl. Toloza’s unit, the two camps were under attack, with the Salvadorans and a small U.S. contingent of soldiers and civilian security personnel trying to protect the perimeter and retake an adjoining seven-story hospital captured by the insurgents.
The Spaniards didn’t fight and only after a long delay agreed to send armored vehicles to help evacuate the wounded. Col. Flores said he cannot question the Spanish decisions that day, but added that the Spaniards “could have helped us sooner.”
U.S. troops have replaced the Spaniards. Salvadoran officers, many of whom were trained at military schools in the United States, say they’re pleased to be working with the Americans.