This morning, in a major 'friendly fire' air attack on vehicles below, the first American reporters on the scene described it as 'a scene from Hell'. That such scenes have become commonplace in Iraq -- but for 'the other side' -- and are rarely described or even visited by American reporters seems lost on everyone
One boy's war... bathed in blood of his family
His father. His mother. Two sisters. A brother. And an uncle. All dead. That was the price of war for 15-year-old Omar when the vehicle he was riding in failed to stop at a US checkpoint five miles from Baghdad. Even the Marines were weeping in sympathy
James Meek in Iraq
Sunday April 6, 2003
Was it worth it? For Omar, a 15-year-old orphaned by US Marines on Friday night, his shirt and trousers saturated with his parents' blood, the answer was no. For Corpsman Thomas Smith, a few days short of his 22nd birthday, exhausted and unbelieving after a day and night of mayhem which had seen three Marines killed, himself almost among them, the answer was yes.
For the senior Iraqi commander, dead in the dirt at the side of the road next to the white Toyota in which he had tried to escape, who knows? The second hand on his watch was still ticking, but the hour and minute hands had stopped at 2 am.
US intelligence sources quickly identified the man as the operations officer of the Special Republican Guards.
If George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein have anything in common, it is that the lives of Omar, Smith and the Iraqi officer are petty cash in their grand accounting of the balance of war. They cannot smell the dead rotting in the heat along the route of the Marines' final charge to the gates of Baghdad; there is no way to make them look Omar in the eye as he stares through his tears at the embarrassed, awkward foreigners who shot his mother and father. The boy did not know whether to be enraged or engulfed in sobbing, so he was both, and neither would help him.
Here, at a crossroads five miles east of the Iraqi capital, Marines shot dead eight civilians and injured seven more, including a child who was shot in the face. All the civilians were travelling out of Baghdad on Friday night in vehicles which, the Marines say, refused to stop when challenged - in English - and, when warning shots were fired, accelerated.
Fearful that they were being attacked by suicide bombers, the Marines shot to immobilise the vehicles. Result? Besides Omar's father and mother, two of his sisters, one brother and an uncle were killed when the bus and truck in which they were travelling were punctured by gunfire. The children were aged three, six and 10.
Aleya, Omar's aunt, walked barefoot through shattered windscreen glass yesterday and climbed into the cab of the truck, which was being repaired to make it roadworthy. She was close to hysterics and past caring about minor physical pain. 'People cry for one dead person. Who am I going to cry for?', she screamed through her weeping.
Omar held up his clothes, dyed a hideous purple-brown colour with the blood in the night. His features kept twisting into the face of the about- to-cry. At one point he scampered to the edge of the road to lift the blanket over the face of his father before the Marines led him away.
In the end the corpses, including one the Marines had begun to bury, were carried by the Iraqis and the Marines to the back of the truck for the family to take away and inter. When Aleya went with a medic to change the dressing on the badly shot-up face of Omar's baby brother, Ali, she confided that she had seen one of the Marines weep in sympathy at the family's grief.
The driver of one of the civilian vehicles claimed that they did stop. But Corporal Adam Clark, one of the Marines manning the checkpoint, his face strained and pale and his hands sealed in stained rubber gloves, said: 'We gave them warning shots. A lot of them. And they didn't stop. That first truck right there just about ran over our forward troops.
'It's not a good day when you carry dead people out of vehicles. What can you do?'
Another of the Marines, Lance Corporal Eric Jewell, said: 'We didn't know what was in that bus. It may sound bad, but I'd rather see more of them dead than any of my friends... Everyone understands the word 'stop', right?'
The checkpoint lay beside a row of dusty down-at-heel shops. Some had their padlocks shot off - it was not clear by whom - and their shelves were half empty. The Marines had not seen shops for weeks, and a little shopping, as much souvenir-hunting and curiosity as looting, was going on. A Marine walked past with a cardboard box that clinked with glass inside, but a string of plastic garden chairs, prized commodities in a war of movement and encampments in desolate places, had not been touched.
In the heat and dust of morning yesterday the crossroads seethed with tanks, armoured troop carriers, Humvees, trucks, and sunburned, weary troops who had fought their way there. Near by a military compound had been reduced to smoking black ash. Thousands of brass cartridge cases glinted on the road where armoured vehicles had dumped the waste of the night's fighting.
These were the units - thousands of infantry, tank crews and supporting arms making up what the Marines call 5th Regimental Combat Team (5RCT) - which had run the gauntlet of Iraqi ambushes along Highway 7 north to Baghdad.
Corpsman Thomas Smith, a Marine medic from New York with a passing resemblance to David Beckham, sat in the driver's seat of his ambulance, still stunned by the experience of the previous 24 hours. He had just finished scrubbing the blood out of the back.
'I was having a rough day. We must have taken about 20 casualties last night,' he said. This included Iraqi civilians injured at the crossroads. 'The whole floor was covered in blood. There was guys vomiting blood. There was blood on the seats. All the stretchers were full of blood. There's one stretcher we had to put down here where the Marines won't see it, because we can't get the blood off. At one point we had about six guys in here.'
Corpsman Smith, the ambulance driver and the unit's doctor were driving north towards Baghdad on Friday in a convoy when they ran into what officers variously described as one long ambush and six separate Iraqi 'killing zones'. There was a torrent of fire from rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank launchers and small arms.
Normally Iraqi ambushes wait until heavily armoured vehicles like tanks have gone past before targeting the thin-skinned vehicles like trucks and Humvees. This time, however, they hit the exter nal fuel tank of an M1 tank, and the crew bailed out. The tank could still be seen on the road yesterday, a charred wreck distinguishable only by its shape from the numerous burned-out Iraqi tanks, a reminder that even the most fearsome US armour is not invulnerable.
Smith found himself in the midst of a bloody firefight. The ambulance driver was shot through the window and hurt his hand. Smith was hit in the chest but his flak jacket saved him from injury. The torn fabric over the damaged protective plate where the bullet bounced off can be clearly seen.
Smith took over the driving, the driver sitting in the passenger seat. Then the driver got shot through the other hand. Rockets and bullets were flying across the road in both directions. 'I didn't think we were going to make it,' said Smith. 'Thank God for the Cobras [Marine helicopter gunships]. They came in and took everything out with their missiles. It was a nice little fireworks show.'
Lt-Col Mike Oehl, a tank battalion commander, said he had lost three men, with nine injured. "I think we quelled most of it, but it was a pretty substantial ambush.
'Every time you lose somebody it's disappointing but... when you consider there are maybe 900 in a battalion, we've lost three.'
Close by, a Humvee with a bullet hole through its windscreen and shot-out tyres was being towed away. The running board was thick with dried blood, just the same nasty colour as the blood of Omar's parents. A Marine lieutenant died on Friday in the vehicle. He was standing up through the hatch in the vehicle's roof when he was shot in the head.
Sergeant Dwight Gray, a 30-year-old reservist in the same unit as the lieutenant, said it had been the dead officer's first mission after he was brought in to replace a lieutenant injured earlier by rocket-propelled grenade fire.
Like other Marines, he is not stopping to mourn yet. 'It's part of the game - you've got to keep your head and stay focused,' he said. 'What I tell my troops is we'll deal with that when it's over. Right now I'd rather not know who's lost, who's died."
After the battalions reached the crossroads on Friday night and things seemed quiet they came under fire again - from inside Baghdad. The Iraqis fired three 120mm rockets. The Iraqis seldom get to fire more because within minutes the position they fire from is located by US radar and Marine artillery can then rain their computer-targeted shells down on it.
The observer was driving towards the crossroads on Friday night when the Marine artillery was firing: the guns ripped open the night with a crack that shook windows and the path of the shells could be seen in white stars sailing upwards in a soft parabola, the remnants of 'wrap-arounds', small rockets which make shells travel further.
But the Iraqi rockets which hit 5 RCT on Friday night, though they did no damage, unnerved the Marines. 'It sounds like someone holding up a piece of one-inch metal next to your ear and tearing it like a sheet of paper,' said one officer.
The Marines are regrouping and reorganising now for what may be a difficult and dangerous assault on Baghdad, or a cruise into the city - or a long siege. Nobody, not even Tommy Franks, can know what will happen inside the capital, but if it comes to a fight it will be warfare such as the US has not seen for decades. There will be much blood in the ambulances of those whose injuries do not greatly trouble the sleep of the great.