Southern Iraq, March 22 (Reuters): US Marines said today they were well placed to strike into the heartlands of Iraq after an arduous cross-desert trek put them astride the main highway to Baghdad.
Infantry Marines, driving north from Kuwait, bypassed their colleagues fighting near Basra on Thursday night and yesterday in their armoured personnel carriers to secure positions some 145 km inside Iraq.
Today, exhausted Marines were trying to catch some sleep, repair battered vehicles and refuel before the assault northwards. Many were occupied with receiving Iraqi soldiers who were walking to US positions to surrender by the dozen.
“It was a long ride but it’s put us in the position where we need to be for the next stage,” said Lt-Col Lew Craparotta. The bumpy, hot and crowded 26-hour journey far exceeded anything attempted in training, he said.
“A little bit of maintenance and refuelling and we’ll be ready to continue,” said Craparotta, a battalion commander within the marine First Division. Baghdad is about 500 km from the Kuwaiti border.
Craparotta’s men were searching the surrendering Iraqis, who included army captains with pistols.
Rank and file troops appeared ill-equipped, with some walking barefoot.
US Marines say they now control the main highway between Basra to an Nasiriyah, a city in south-central Iraq.
Reuters correspondent Andrew Gray, travelling separately with elements of the Third Infantry Division, said a battle was still raging today for an airfield near Nassiriya.
But the Marines met no opposition on their dusty journey north. Bedouin nomads herding their flocks were the only civilians they met.
Many of the Marines said the trip had been the most arduous journey they had undertaken. Crammed 15 to 20 in the back of tracked, armoured vehicles, they had to sit for hours coated in dust swirling through the hatches from the desert outside.
“It was long and rough, very rough. My feet fell asleep every two minutes and I had to keep standing up and sitting down to bring them back to life,” said Lance Corporal Nathan Magnus. A design flaw with the exhaust manifold mounted atop the personnel carriers sends plumes of choking engine smoke into the holds, stinging the eyes of the Marines and making the ride even more miserable.