About 36 hours before the invasion of Iraq began, soldiers from the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division braced themselves for combat with a marching song about American soldiers killed during World War II.
Having torn down their desert camps and moved to the southwest corner of Kuwait, orders to "push out" across the nearby border into Iraq were shouted by ground troops down along the long lines of vehicles from the 3rd Infantry Division just before dawn on March 20.
Master Sergeant: Everybody stop what you're doing. Get back in your vehicles and push out.
Sergeant: Stop what you're doing. Get into your vehicles and get ready to push out.
Master Sergeant: We're pushing out right where you're at.
It wasn't until the next evening -- after the division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team had advanced across 300 kilometers of desert -- that the U.S. Army's first major battle in Iraq began. The U.S. plan called for simultaneous attacks on three military objectives just outside of Al-Nasiriyah.
One of them was the headquarters of the Iraqi Regular Army's 11th Infantry Division -- a massive compound with barracks and repair facilities for at least one armored battalion. It was codenamed Objective Liberty.
Objective Clay was a bridge across the Euphrates River, about 10 kilometers from the city.
The third objective was Tallil Airfield -- codenamed Objective Firebird. It was the task of the soldiers I traveled with to destroy Tallil's defenses so that a follow-up force could occupy the airfield and U.S. planes could use it to support the advance on Baghdad.
The Battle Begins
Near Objective Liberty, a platoon of U.S. Abrams M-1 tanks spotted six Iraqi T-62 tanks dug into fighting positions.
The aging, Soviet-built tanks appeared as hot spots on the thermal sights of the Abrams gunners -- confirming that the Iraqi tanks had their engines running. But without night-vision instruments -- and with their guns unable to match the range or firepower of the U.S. tanks -- the Iraqi armor was decimated within minutes.
Explosions seen and heard from the direction of Objective Clay indicated fierce Iraqi resistance there. But the Americans managed to capture the bridge intact before sunrise without any casualties.
Meanwhile, the soldiers I rode with approached their battle positions near the airfield. As the column advanced around Tallil's defensive earthworks and its oil-filled trenches, U.S. commanders still hoped the Iraqis there would surrender without a fight.
Confusion In The Dark
Then, after a short pause in the darkness, the lead vehicles of the convoy drove off to their battle positions -- leaving me stranded in no-man's-land with a few dozen U.S. soldiers.
It was typical of what can happen in the confusion of battle. Two days later, 19-year-old U.S. Private Jessica Lynch would be captured by Iraqis after her vehicle became separated from her convoy in the same area.
Sergeant Rourke, nicknamed "Mike Golf" because of his status as a master gunner, discovered that two soldiers in a truck ahead had fallen asleep during the brief pause.
Those in the vehicles behind the sleeping soldiers had no idea that the front of the convoy had already advanced into battle position.
U.S. Captain Dan Zovkie was furious. He shouted at Rourke just as another soldier announced on the battalion's radio network that part of the convoy had been left behind.
Zovkie: Let's go, Mike Golf.
Radio transmission: I'm the last vehicle in the convoy.
Zovkie: Rourke! Let's go! Get in the car.
Rourke: Whoever was leading this convoy ran off and left us. I wonder who was leading?
Uttering a string of curse words, Zovkie immediately improvised a plan in case of an attack by the Iraqi troops on the other side of the earthworks.
Zovkie: Nobody walks away from this truck. 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. 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.
Hopes of making it to a safer place were dashed when the task force commander, Lieutenant Colonel John Charlton, ordered all of the stranded vehicles to hold their positions. Over the battalion radio, Charlton warned "Basically, anything that moves has got to die."
I could hear U.S. intelligence officers on the radio discussing whether the Iraqis at the airfield were going to surrender. The transmissions revealed that senior officers in Iraq's regular army had taken bribes from covert U.S. agents in exchange for a surrender without a fight. The Pentagon later confirmed such bribes were paid.
According to one transmission, a top Iraqi officer claimed his troops had been ordered into civilian clothes but couldn't surrender yet.
That commander was still promising capitulation when two Iraqis on a motorcycle charged at a U.S. tank. One was carrying a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher. A flash of light came from the tank's gun barrel, marking the start of the battle.
The radio started to hum with battlefield reports and "call for fire" requests from U.S. scouts located dozens of Iraqi vehicles within the airfield with their thermal guidance systems.
I watched for hours as U.S. artillery barrages passed overhead and into the airfield. When a shell missed, the explosion made a small flash. When a target was hit, there often were secondary blasts from exploding ammunition or fuel. Through tinted night-vision goggles, the sky appeared to light up in an enormous greenish blaze.
Then the stranded U.S. vehicles were told to advance. In the eerie yellow-gray light before dawn, I passed twisted metal and charred ground -- all that was left of the motorcycle attack against the U.S. tank.
Civilians As Human Shields
Muted colors gave the landscape the appearance of a World War II-era newsreel. The hulks of burning Iraqi vehicles still burned, belching trails of black smoke that were carried perpendicular to the horizon by a strong wind. Rubble and more wrecked Iraqi military vehicles dotted the roadside. Several dozen Iraqi prisoners were being escorted by U.S. troops to a temporary holding area.
By the time Captain Zovkie was reunited with his unit, the sun had begun to rise.
Suddenly, several dozen Iraqi women and children began slowly approaching the U.S. forces. One woman was opening and closing a dark outer robe with a white inner lining. It was a clear signal of distress. None of these civilians was carrying weapons.
Lieutenant Colonel Charlton shouted at his soldiers to hold their fire. But he also told them to also be prepared for the possibility of a sudden attack. He suspected the women and children were being used as human shields by Iraqi forces.
He was right. A pickup truck raced out toward the brigade's tactical-operations center with a half dozen uniformed Iraqi soldiers who carried rocket-propelled-grenade launchers. They managed to fire two rockets -- narrowly missing a 5,000-gallon U.S. fuel truck -- before the gunner in a U.S. Bradley fighting vehicle fired a burst with depleted-uranium ammunition. The DU-ammo pierced the fuel tank of the pickup truck and ignited a fireball that killed all of the Iraqi soldiers.
The civilians started to move back after the failed attack.
Iraqi infantry would stage several more counterattacks that morning. But their assaults melted away when they were strafed and bombed by U.S. A-10 Warthog planes that flew in from Kuwait to provide close air support.
The 3rd Brigade Combat Team had accomplished its first objectives of the war. The defenses at Tallil were destroyed and the Euphrates River bridge was captured.
Iraqi resistance would continue at Objective Liberty and from the city of Al-Nasiriyah itself after the lead U.S. combat teams moved on to battles near Al-Samawah, Al-Najaf, Karbala, and Baghdad.
But American reinforcements were soon moving into Tallil Airfield and military cargo planes started landing with supplies to support the U.S. advance on Baghdad.
The rules for embedded journalists prohibited me from reporting immediately that U.S. forces had established a forward-operations base in southern Iraq. That information would remain embargoed for embedded journalists until Saddam Hussein International Airport was captured and renamed Baghdad International Airport about two weeks later.
But one important fact could be told: The U.S. Army had fought its first major battle of the war. And the Pentagon's hopes for an Iraqi capitulation without a fight had failed to materialize.
RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz with U.S. troops in Iraq in March 2003 (RFE/RL)
THE SOUND OF THE GUNS: In the days just before and after the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom on March 19-20, 2003, RFE/RL worked hard to cover the unfolding conflict. RFE/RL correspondent RON SYNOVITZ was embedded with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team in the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division as it crossed the border from Kuwait and drove deep into Iraq. Synovitz stayed with the U.S. troops through mid-April, covering the battle for Baghdad and the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime.
RFE/RL correspondent CHARLES RECKNAGEL also covered the beginning of the war from Kuwait and Iraq. Here are some links to his reports:
THE COMPLETE PICTURE: To view an archive of RFE/RL's coverage of the beginning of combat operations in Iraq, click here.