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Iraq: Reporter's Notebook -- The Battle For The Talil Airfield (Part 4)

RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz was embedded with U.S. troops during the first weeks of the Iraq war. In this "Reporter's Notebook," he looks back at the first major battle fought by soldiers from the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division -- the siege of the strategic Talil airfield near the southern Iraqi city of Al-Nasiriyah.

Prague, 18 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Traveling with U.S. forces during the invasion of Iraq a year ago, I learned firsthand the truth behind one of the most famous dictums of combat -- anything can happen in the fog of war. No matter how well prepared a battle strategy is, plans tend to go awry as soon as contact is made with the enemy.

I learned that lesson the hard way on the second night of the war. Part of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division -- the 3rd Brigade Combat Team -- had advanced across open desert from the southwest corner of Kuwait to the strategic Talil airfield near Al-Nasiriyah.

The vehicle I was riding in got cut off from the main convoy, and I suddenly found myself stranded between the Iraqi regular army and the main U.S. battle line. It was a typical example of what can happen in the confusion of battle. Two days later, 19-year-old U.S. Private Jessica Lynch would be captured by Iraqi troops after becoming separated from her convoy and getting lost in almost the same place.

I watched nervously as Sergeant Rourke, nicknamed "Mike Golf" because of his status as a "Master Gunner," jumped from the Humvee. He discovered that two exhausted soldiers a few vehicles ahead had fallen asleep when the convoy had paused.

None of the U.S. vehicles was using headlights so close to Iraqi forces. In the darkness, beside the fortification walls and oil trenches around the airfield, drivers behind the sleeping soldiers had no idea that the front of the convoy had already advanced the last kilometer to their battle positions.

The officer driving the Humvee I was in -- Captain Dan Zovkie of Chicago -- was furious. The commander of each vehicle is supposed to report to the convoy leader when something happens to those behind. It is the responsibility of the convoy leader to ensure that all vehicles stay together.

Captain Zovkie shouted at Sergeant Rourke just as another soldier announced on the battalion's radio that part of the convoy had been left behind.

Zovkie: "Let's go, Mike Golf."
Radio: "I'm the last vehicle in the convoy."
Zovkie: "Let's go! Get in the car."
Rourke: "Whoever was leading this convoy ran off and left us. I wonder who was leading?"

Stranded in enemy territory, which U.S. troops refer to as "Indian country," Captain Zovkie did what soldiers are trained to do in life-threatening situations -- improvise. He immediately came up with a contingency plan in case of an Iraqi ambush.

Zovkie: "Nobody walks away from this truck. All right? You can step outside to [urinate]. But if anything happens, check it out, if anything happens and we have to get out of this truck, we will rally and get back to 100 meters off the back of the tail. All right? So if we are heading this way, and we get in contact [with Iraqi troops] and we have to [jump out of] this truck, we rally 100 meters off the back. We don't walk away from each other. We use the radio to do our walking. Who knows what is out here. We are in Indian country."

It wasn't just the possibility of an Iraqi ambush that made me nervous. The battalion radio network was broadcasting intelligence reports of up to 40 Iraqi tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery pieces nearby. Our stranded part of the convoy was directly in the line of fire of U.S. artillery. It could be targeted by allied forces while trying to reach relative safety behind U.S. lines during the unfolding battle.

Hopes of making it there were dashed when the brigade commander, Lieutenant Colonel John Charlton, ordered all of the stranded vehicles to stay in position. Over the battalion radio, Charlton said, "Basically, anything that moves has got to die."

During the next 30 minutes, in our exposed position, I could hear U.S. intelligence officers discussing on the radio whether the Iraqis were going to surrender. It became clear from those communications that senior officers in Iraq's regular army had taken bribes from covert U.S. agents in order to surrender the airfield without a fight. The Pentagon would later confirm that such bribes were paid.

According to one transmission, a senior Iraqi officer who took a bribe was saying that all of the Iraqi soldiers had been ordered to wear civilian clothes. The Iraqi commander was still promising that capitulation. But he said it was impossible to follow a U.S. demand that all Iraqi armor be parked together in groups of four with their gun barrels pointed backward.

Suddenly, two Iraqis on a motorcycle -- one driving and one carrying a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher -- charged out of the Iraqi base and straight at a U.S. Abrams tank. I saw an enormous flash of light about a kilometer away and heard the sound of a single tank shell scoring a direct hit on the charging Iraqis.

The battle had begun.

The radio started to hum with "call-for-fire" requests from U.S. scouts using thermal guidance systems to lock in on Iraqi positions.

For hours, heavy U.S. artillery barrages passed over my head and into the nearby Talil airfield.

I watched the battle for hours through my night-vision goggles. When U.S. artillery missed, there would be a flash. When a target was hit, there often would be secondary explosions from exploding ammunition, and the sky would momentarily light up in an enormous greenish blaze.

At one point, a cluster of several dozen Iraqi vehicles tried to dash out of a gate on the far side of the airfield. But one well-aimed shell caught the lead vehicle and blocked the others. Decimation followed. Over the next few minutes, for every 10 U.S. shells fired, I saw eight or nine secondary explosions indicating direct hits.

Then the order came over the radio that it was safe for our stranded vehicles to move forward. In an eerie yellow gray light before dawn, I passed twisted metal and charred ground -- all that was left of the motorcycle that had tried to charge the U.S. tank.

Muted colors gave the landscape the appearance of an old newsreel film from World War II. Fires belched trails of black smoke that were carried perpendicular to the horizon by a strong wind. Wrecked vehicles and rubble dotted the roadside, and several dozen Iraqi prisoners were being marched in the opposite direction to a temporary holding area.

The 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division had accomplished its first major goal of the war -- the capture of the Talil airfield, code-named Objective Firebird.

Iraqi resistance near Al-Nasiryah would continue long after the combat team had moved on to battles near Samawah, Al-Najaf, Karbala, and Baghdad.

But within 24 hours -- as soon as ground troops arrived to reinforce the base and Patriot missile crews established air defenses -- C-130 and C-17 cargo planes began to fly in supplies to support the U.S. advance.

For strategic purposes, the rules for embedded journalists prohibited reports that the major forward operations base had been established inside southern Iraq. That information would remain embargoed until Saddam Hussein International Airport was captured and renamed Baghdad International Airport about two weeks later.

But one thing could be reported immediately. The U.S. Army had fought its first major battle of the war. The Pentagon's hopes for capitulation without a fight had failed to materialize.