- Hi Jeff - I've forwarded this excellent piece of war
journalism to you for posting on your site so that US citizens can experience
an approximation of modern war - free from the usual network censorship
and sanitization - make no bones about it this war is legalized murder
- in our names, whether we like it or not - we, and most of humanity,
shall be paying for this for decades to come - where and when will it end.
- US Marines Turn Fire On Civilians At 'The
Bridge Of Death'
- By Mark Franchetti
- The Sunday Times - UK
- The light was a strange yellowy grey and the wind was
coming up, the beginnings of a sandstorm. The silence felt almost eerie
after a night of shooting so intense it hurt the eardrums and shattered
the nerves. My footsteps felt heavy on the hot, dusty asphalt as I walked
slowly towards the bridge at Nasiriya. A horrific scene lay ahead.
- Some 15 vehicles, including a minivan and a couple of
trucks, blocked the road. They were riddled with bullet holes. Some had
caught fire and turned into piles of black twisted metal. Others were still
- Amid the wreckage I counted 12 dead civilians, lying
in the road or in nearby ditches. All had been trying to leave this southern
town overnight, probably for fear of being killed by US helicopter attacks
and heavy artillery.
- Their mistake had been to flee over a bridge that is
crucial to the coalition's supply lines and to run into a group of shell-shocked
young American marines with orders to shoot anything that moved.
- One man's body was still in flames. It gave out a hissing
sound. Tucked away in his breast pocket, thick wads of banknotes were turning
to ashes. His savings, perhaps.
- Down the road, a little girl, no older than five and
dressed in a pretty orange and gold dress, lay dead in a ditch next to
the body of a man who may have been her father. Half his head was missing.
- Nearby, in a battered old Volga, peppered with ammunition
holes, an Iraqi woman - perhaps the girl's mother - was dead, slumped in
the back seat. A US Abrams tank nicknamed Ghetto Fabulous drove past the
- This was not the only family who had taken what they
thought was a last chance for safety. A father, baby girl and boy lay in
a shallow grave. On the bridge itself a dead Iraqi civilian lay next to
the carcass of a donkey.
- As I walked away, Lieutenant Matt Martin, whose third
child, Isabella, was born while he was on board ship en route to the Gulf,
appeared beside me.
- "Did you see all that?" he asked, his eyes
filled with tears. "Did you see that little baby girl? I carried her
body and buried it as best I could but I had no time. It really gets to
me to see children being killed like this, but we had no choice."
- Martin's distress was in contrast to the bitter satisfaction
of some of his fellow marines as they surveyed the scene. "The Iraqis
are sick people and we are the chemotherapy," said Corporal Ryan Dupre.
"I am starting to hate this country. Wait till I get hold of a friggin'
Iraqi. No, I won't get hold of one. I'll just kill him."
- Only a few days earlier these had still been the bright-eyed
small-town boys with whom I crossed the border at the start of the operation.
They had rolled towards Nasiriya, a strategic city beside the Euphrates,
on a mission to secure a safe supply route for troops on the way to Baghdad.
- They had expected a welcome, or at least a swift surrender.
Instead they had found themselves lured into a bloody battle, culminating
in the worst coalition losses of the war - 16 dead, 12 wounded and two
missing marines as well as five dead and 12 missing servicemen from an
army convoy - and the humiliation of having prisoners paraded on Iraqi
- There are three key bridges at Nasiriya. The feat of
Martin, Dupre and their fellow marines in securing them under heavy fire
was compared by armchair strategists last week to the seizure of the Remagen
bridge over the Rhine, which significantly advanced victory over Germany
in the second world war.
- But it was also the turning point when the jovial band
of brothers from America lost all their assumptions about the war and became
jittery aggressors who talked of wanting to "nuke" the place.
- None of this was foreseen at Camp Shoup, one of the marines'
tent encampments in northern Kuwait, where officers from the 1st and 2nd
battalions of Task Force Tarawa, the 7,000-strong US Marines brigade, spent
long evenings poring over maps and satellite imagery before the invasion.
- The plan seemed straightforward. The marines would speed
unhindered over the
- 130 miles of desert up from the Kuwaiti border and approach
Nasiriya from the southeast to secure a bridge over the Euphrates. They
would then drive north through the outskirts of Nasiriya to a second bridge,
over the Inahr al-Furbati canal. Finally, they would turn west and secure
the third bridge, also over the canal. The marines would not enter the
city proper, let alone attempt to take it.
- The coalition could then start moving thousands of troops
and logistical support units up highway 7, leading to Baghdad, 225 miles
to the north.
- There was only one concern: "ambush alley",
the road connecting the first two bridges. But intelligence suggested there
would be little or no fighting as this eastern side of the city was mostly
- I was with Alpha company. We reached the outskirts of
Nasiriya at about breakfast time last Sunday. Some marines were disappointed
to be carrying out a mission that seemed a sideshow to the main effort.
But in an ominous sign of things to come, our battalion stopped in its
tracks, three miles outside the city.
- Bad news filtered back. Earlier that morning a US Army
convoy had been greeted by a group of Iraqis dressed in civilian clothes,
apparently wanting to surrender. When the American soldiers stopped, the
Iraqis pulled out AK-47s and sprayed the US trucks with gunfire.
- Five wounded soldiers were rescued by our convoy, including
one who had been shot four times. The attackers were believed to be members
of the Fedayeen Saddam, a group of 15,000 fighters under the command of
Saddam's psychopathic son Uday.
- Blown-up tyres, a pool of blood, spent ammunition and
shards of glass from the bullet ridden windscreen marked the spot where
the ambush had taken place. Swiftly, our AAVs (23-ton amphibious assault
vehicles) took up defensive positions. About 100 marines jumped out of
their vehicles and took cover in ditches, pointing their sights at a mud-caked
house. Was it harbouring gunmen? Small groups of marines approached, cautiously,
to search for the enemy. A dozen terrified civilians, mainly women and
children, emerged with their hands raised.
- "It's just a bunch of Hajis," said one gunner
from his turret, using their nickname for Arabs. "Friggin' women and
children, that's all."
- Cobras and Huey attack helicopters began firing missiles
at targets on the edge of the city. Plumes of smoke rose as heavy artillery
shook the ground under our feet.
- Heavy machinegun fire echoed across the huge rubbish
dump that marks the entrance to Nasiriya. Suddenly there was return fire
from three large oil tanks at a refinery. The Cobras were called back,
and within seconds they roared above our heads, firing off missiles in
clouds of purple tracer fire.
- There were several loud explosions. Flames burst high
into the sky from one of the oil tanks. The marines believed that what
opposition there was had now been crushed. "We are going in, we are
going in," shouted one of the officers.
- More than 20 AAVs, several tanks and about 10 Hummers
equipped with roof-mounted, anti-tank missile launchers prepared to move
in. Crammed inside them were some 400 marines. Tension rose as they loaded
their guns and stuck their heads over the side of the AAVs through the
open roof, their M-16 pointed in all directions.
- As we set off towards the eastern city gate there was
no sense of the mayhem awaiting us down the road. A few locals dressed
in rags watched the awesome spectacle of America's war machine on the move.
- Slowly we approached the first bridge. Fires were raging
on either side of the road; Cobras had destroyed an Iraqi military truck
and a T55 tank positioned inside a dugout. Powerful explosions came from
inside the bowels of the tank as its ammunition and heavy shells were set
off by the fire. With each explosion a thick and perfect ring of black
smoke ring puffed out of the turret.
- An Iraqi defence post lay abandoned. Cobras flew over
an oasis of palm trees and deserted brick and mud-caked houses. We charged
onto the bridge, and as we crossed the Euphrates, a large mural of Saddam
came into view. Some marines reached for their disposable cameras.
- Suddenly, as we approached ambush alley on the far side
of the bridge, the crackle of AK-47s broke out. Our AAVs began to zigzag
to avoid being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG).
- The road widened out to a square, with a mosque and the
portrait of Saddam on the left-hand side. The vehicles wheeled round, took
up a defensive position, back to back, and began taking fire.
- Pinned down, the marines fired back with 40mm automatic
grenade launchers, a weapon so powerful it can go through thick brick walls
and kill anyone within a 5-yard range of where the shell lands.
- I was in AAV number A304, affectionately nicknamed the
Desert Caddy. It shook as Keith Bernize, the gunner, fired off round after
deafening round at sandbag positions shielding suspected Fedayeen fighters.
His steel ammunition box clanged with the sound of smoking empty shells
- Bernize, who always carries a scan picture of his unborn
baby daughter with him, shot at the targets from behind a turret, peering
through narrow slits of reinforced glass. He shouted at his men to feed
him more ammunition. Four marines, standing at the AAV's four corners,
precariously perched on ammunition boxes, fired off their M-16s.
- Their faces covered in sweat, officers shouted commands
into field radios, giving co-ordinates of enemy positions. Some 200 marines,
fully exposed to enemy fire and slowed down by their heavy weapons, bulky
ammunition packs and NBC suits, ran across the road, taking shelter behind
a long brick wall and mounds of earth. A team of snipers appeared, yards
from our vehicle.
- The exchange of fire was relentless. We were pinned down
for more than three hours as Iraqis hiding inside houses and a hospital
and behind street corners fired a barrage of ammunition.
- Despite the marines' overwhelming firepower, hitting
the Iraqis was not easy. The gunmen were not wearing uniforms and had planned
their ambush well - stockpiling weapons in dozens of houses, between which
they moved freely pretending to be civilians.
- "It's a bad situation," said First Sergeant
James Thompson, who was running around with a 9mm pistol in his hand. "We
don't know who is shooting at us. They are even using women as scouts.
The women come out waving at us, or with their hands raised. We freeze,
but the next minute we can see how she is looking at our positions and
giving them away to the fighters hiding behind a street corner. It's very
difficult to distinguish between the fighters and civilians."
- Across the square, genuine civilians were running for
their lives. Many, including some children, were gunned down in the crossfire.
In a surreal scene, a father and mother stood out on a balcony with their
children in their arms to give them a better view of the battle raging
below. A few minutes later several US mortar shells landed in front of
their house. In all probability, the family is dead.
- The fighting intensified. An Iraqi fighter emerged from
behind a wall of sandbags 500 yards away from our vehicle. Several times
he managed to fire off an RPG at our positions. Bernize and other gunners
fired dozens of rounds at his dugout, punching large holes into a house
and lifting thick clouds of dust.
- Captain Mike Brooks, commander of Alpha company, pinned
down in front of the mosque, called in tank support. Armed with only a
9mm pistol, he jumped out of the back of his AAV with a young marine carrying
a field radio on his back.
- Brooks, 34, from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, had been
in command of 200 men for just over a year. He joined the marines when
he was 19 because he felt that he was wasting his life. He needed direction,
was a bit of a rebel and was impressed by the sense of pride in the corps.
- He is a soft-spoken man, fair but very firm. Brave too:
I watched him sprint in front of enemy positions to brief some of his junior
officers behind a wall. Behind us, two 68-ton Abrams tanks rolled up, crushing
the barrier separating the lanes on the highway.
- The earth shook violently as one tank, Desert Knight,
stopped in front of our row of AAVS and fired several 120mm shells into
- A few hundred yards down ambush alley there was carnage.
An AAV from Charlie company was racing back towards the bridge to evacuate
some wounded marines when it was hit by two RPGs. The heavy vehicle shook
but withstood the explosions.
- Then the Iraqis fired again. This time the rocket plunged
into the vehicle through the open rooftop. The explosion was deadly, made
10 times more powerful by the ammunition stored in the back.
- The wreckage smouldered in the middle of the road. I
jumped out from the rear hatch of our vehicle, briefly taking cover behind
a wall. When I reached the stricken AAV, the scene was mayhem.
- The heavy, thick rear ramp had been blown open. There
were pools of blood and bits of flesh everywhere. A severed leg, still
wearing a desert boot, lay on what was left of the ramp among playing cards,
a magazine, cans of Coke and a small bloodstained teddy bear.
- "They are f****** dead, they are dead. Oh my God.
Get in there. Get in there now and pull them out," shouted a gunner
in a state verging on hysterical.
- There was panic and confusion as a group of young marines,
shouting and cursing orders at one another, pulled out a maimed body.
- Two men struggled to lift the body on a stretcher and
into the back of a Hummer, but it would not fit inside, so the stretcher
remained almost upright, the dead man's leg, partly blown away, dangling
in the air.
- "We shouldn't be here," said Lieutenant Campbell
Kane, 25, who was born in Northern Ireland. "We can't hold this. They
are trying to suck us into the city and we haven't got enough ass up here
to sustain this. We need more tanks, more helicopters."
- Closer to the destroyed AAV, another young marine was
transfixed with fear and kept repeating: "Oh my God, I can't believe
this. Did you see his leg? It was blown off. It was blown off."
- Two CH-46 helicopters, nicknamed Frogs, landed a few
hundred yards away in the middle of a firefight to take away the dead and
- If at first the marines felt constrained by orders to
protect civilians, by now the battle had become so intense that there was
little time for niceties. Cobra helicopters were ordered to fire at a row
of houses closest to our positions. There were massive explosions but the
return fire barely died down.
- Behind us, as many as four AAVs that had driven down
along the banks of the Euphrates were stuck in deep mud and coming under
- About 1pm, after three hours of intense fighting, the
order was given to regroup and try to head out of the city in convoy. Several
marines who had lost their vehicles piled into the back of ours.
- We raced along ambush alley at full speed, close to a
line of houses. "My driver got hit," said one of the marines
who joined us, his face and uniform caked in mud. "I went to try to
help him when he got hit by another RPG or a mortar. I don't even know
how many friends I have lost. I don't care if they nuke that bloody city
now. From one house they were waving while shooting at us with AKs from
the next. It was insane."
- There was relief when we finally crossed the second bridge
to the northeast of the city in mid-afternoon. But there was more horror
to come. Beside the smouldering wreckage of another AAV were the bodies
of another four marines, laid out in the mud and covered with camouflage
ponchos. There were body parts everywhere.
- One of the dead was Second Lieutenant Fred Pokorney,
31, a marine artillery officer from Washington state. He was a big guy,
whose ill-fitting uniform was the butt of many jokes. It was supposed to
have been a special day for Pokorney. After 13 years of service, he was
to be promoted to first lieutenant. The men of Charlie company had agreed
they would all shake hands with him to celebrate as soon as they crossed
the second bridge, their mission accomplished.
- It didn't happen. Pokorney made it over the second bridge
and a few hundred yards down a highway through dusty flatlands before his
vehicle was ambushed. Pokorney and his men had no chance. Fully loaded
with ammunition, their truck exploded in the middle of the road, its remains
burning for hours. Pokorney was hit in the chest by an RPG.
- Another man who died was Fitzgerald Jordan, a staff sergeant
from Texas. I felt numb when I heard this. I had met Jordan 10 days before
we moved into Nasiriya. He was a character, always chewing tobacco and
coming up to pat you on the back. He got me to fetch newspapers for him
from Kuwait City. Later, we shared a bumpy ride across the desert in the
back of a Humvee.
- A decorated Gulf war veteran, he used to complain about
having to come back to Iraq. "We should have gone all the way to Baghdad
12 years ago when we were here and had a real chance of removing Saddam."
- Now Pokorney, Jordan and their comrades lay among unspeakable
carnage. An older marine walked by carrying a huge chunk of flesh, so maimed
it was impossible to tell which body part it was. With tears in his eyes
and blood splattered over his flak jacket, he held the remains of his friend
in his arms until someone gave him a poncho to wrap them with.
- Frantic medics did what they could to relieve horrific
injuries, until four helicopters landed in the middle of the highway to
take the injured to a military hospital. Each wounded marine had a tag
describing his injury. One had gunshot wounds to the face, another to the
chest. Another simply lay on his side in the sand with a tag reading: "Urgent
- surgery, buttock."
- One young marine was assigned the job of keeping the
flies at bay. Some of his comrades, exhausted, covered in blood, dirt and
sweat walked around dazed. There were loud cheers as the sound of the heaviest
artillery yet to pound Nasiriya shook the ground.
- Before last week the overwhelming majority of these young
men had never been in combat. Few had even seen a dead body. Now, their
faces had changed. Anger and fear were fuelled by rumours that the bodies
of American soldiers had been dragged through Nasiriya's streets. Some
marines cried in the arms of friends, others sought comfort in the Bible.
- Next morning, the men of Alpha company talked about the
fighting over MREs (meals ready to eat). They were jittery now and reacted
nervously to any movement around their dugouts. They suspected that civilian
cars, including taxis, had helped resupply the enemy inside the city. When
cars were spotted speeding along two roads, frantic calls were made over
the radio to get permission to "kill the vehicles". Twenty-four
hours earlier it would almost certainly have been denied: now it was granted.
- Immediately, the level of force levelled at civilian
vehicles was overwhelming. Tanks were placed on the road and AAVs lined
along one side. Several taxis were destroyed by helicopter gunships as
they drove down the road.
- A lorry filled with sacks of wheat made the fatal mistake
of driving through US lines. The order was given to fire. Several AAVs
pounded it with a barrage of machinegun fire, riddling the windscreen with
at least 20 holes. The driver was killed instantly. The lorry swerved off
the road and into a ditch. Rumour spread that the driver had been armed
and had fired at the marines. I walked up to the lorry, but could find
no trace of a weapon.
- This was the start of day that claimed many civilian
casualties. After the lorry a truck came down the road. Again the marines
fired. Inside, four men were killed. They had been travelling with some
10 other civilians, mainly women and children who were evacuated, crying,
their clothes splattered in blood. Hours later a dog belonging to the dead
driver was still by his side.
- The marines moved west to take a military barracks and
secure their third objective, the third bridge, which carried a road out
of the city.
- At the barracks, the marines hung a US flag from a statue
of Saddam, but Lieutenant-Colonel Rick Grabowski, the battalion commander,
ordered it down. He toured barracks. There were stacks of Russian-made
ammunition and hundreds of Iraqi army uniforms, some new, others left behind
by fleeing Iraqi soldiers.
- One room had a map of Nasiriya, showing its defences
and two large cardboard arrows indicating the US plan of attack to take
the two main bridges. Above the map were several murals praising Saddam.
One, which sickened the Americans, showed two large civilian planes crashing
into tall buildings.
- As night fell again there was great tension, the marines
fearing an ambush. Two tanks and three AAVs were placed at the north end
of the third bridge, their guns pointing down towards Nasiriya, and given
orders to shoot at any vehicle that drove towards American positions.
- Though civilians on foot passed by safely, the policy
was to shoot anything that moved on wheels. Inevitably, terrified civilians
drove at speed to escape: marines took that speed to be a threat and hit
out. During the night, our teeth on edge, we listened a dozen times as
the AVVs' machineguns opened fire, cutting through cars and trucks like
- Next morning I saw the result of this order - the dead
civilians, the little girl in the orange and gold dress.
- Suddenly, some of the young men who had crossed into
Iraq with me reminded me now of their fathers' generation, the trigger-happy
grunts of Vietnam. Covered in the mud from the violent storms, they were
drained and dangerously aggressive.
- In the days afterwards, the marines consolidated their
position and put a barrier of trucks across the bridge to stop anyone from
driving across, so there were no more civilian deaths.
- They also ruminated on what they had done. Some rationalised
- "I was shooting down a street when suddenly a woman
came out and casually began to cross the street with a child no older than
10," said Gunnery Sergeant John Merriman, another Gulf war veteran.
"At first I froze on seeing the civilian woman. She then crossed back
again with the child and went behind a wall. Within less than a minute
a guy with an RPG came out and fired at us from behind the same wall. This
happened a second time so I thought, 'Okay, I get it. Let her come out
- She did and this time I took her out with my M-16."
Others were less sanguine.
- Mike Brooks was one of the commanders who had given the
order to shoot at civilian vehicles. It weighed on his mind, even though
he felt he had no choice but to do everything to protect his marines from
- On Friday, making coffee in the dust, he told me he had
been writing a diary, partly for his wife Kelly, a nurse at home in Jacksonville,
North Carolina, with their sons Colin, 6, and four-year-old twins Brian
- When he came to jotting down the incident about the two
babies getting killed by his men he couldn't do it. But he said he would
tell her when he got home. I offered to let him call his wife on my satellite
phone to tell her he was okay. He turned down the offer and had me write
and send her an e-mail instead.
- He was too emotional. If she heard his voice, he said,
she would know that something was wrong.