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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- Blinding Dust Brings U.S. Troops Face-To-Face With Iraqi Fighters

RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz is embedded with a unit of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division based outside the Iraqi city of Samawah, some 240 kilometers south of Baghdad. In this Desert Dispatch, he reports that yesterday's blinding dust storms wreaked havoc with the unit's weaponry and scouting capabilities -- and brought U.S. troops face-to-face with Iraqi fighters.

Samawah, Iraq; 26 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Urban fighting in the south-central town of Samawah yesterday between U.S. troops and Iraqi Saddam Fedayeen commandos reveals the difficulties facing U.S. soldiers as they try to do battle in desert dust storms.

A column of more than a dozen Bradley troop carriers and a half-dozen Abrahms tanks set off yesterday morning to probe Iraqi positions on the east side of Samawah.

Within an hour, 50-kilometer-per-hour winds whipped up thick clouds of reddish sand that turned the air pink and cut visibility to under 100 meters.

As the column moved through the eastern neighborhoods and industrial parks of Samawah, the high-tech equipment for the U.S. scouts -- which is meant to provide forward vision of up to 40 kilometers -- was unable to penetrate more than 2 kilometers into the dust. Soldiers relying on their own eyes couldn't see more than vague silhouettes beyond 10 meters.

The severity of the high winds and dust also ruled out the possibility of close air support because U.S. Apache helicopter flights were grounded for the day. Support for the U.S. troops from heavy artillery also was limited by the near-impossibility of sighting targets.

The U.S. armored columns pushed forward without making any contact with the Iraqi troops. Soon, a U.S. scout unit became separated from the tanks and the Bradleys and the U.S. scouts then stumbled upon a compound of Saddam Fedayeen commandos in Samawah.

But the vision of Iraqis dug in behind sandbags at the compound gate only emerged from the dust when the scouts were about 20 meters away. As an Iraqi truck with its headlights on began driving at the scouts and then turned off its headlights, the driver of the scouts' Humvee shifted into reverse and headed out as fast as he could.

Later, after the scouts had regrouped with the American armored convoy, the column stumbled across two Nissan pickup trucks carrying about 20 Iraqi commandos, all carrying rocket-propelled grenade launchers. The commandos were driving in the opposite direction across a divided highway median, and they had passed nearly a quarter of the U.S. vehicles in the convoy before either side fired a shot.

As one of the U.S. Bradley troop carriers began shooting its 25-millimeter chain gun at point-blank range, one of the two Nissan pickup trucks instantly exploded into a ball of fire, killing all of the Iraqis aboard. But the Iraqi commandos in the other Nissan managed to jump out of their vehicle when the firefight began, and several of them vanished quickly into the thick cloud of dust.

In reports on the incident that were filed by U.S. soldiers afterwards, 18 soldiers said that they were unable to shoot their weapons because they had jammed in the dust. Others had tried to protect their guns from the dust by wrapping them in ponchos, and were unable to remove the ponchos and quickly fire.

Later that night, after a downpour had cleared the air of the dust, the Saddam Fedayeen compound that was spotted by the U.S. scouts was targeted by a massive artillery barrage. The compound no longer exists.