| Bodies of Iraqi soldiers lie on the ground as US Marines search around the bus shot up in Iraq on Thursday. (Reuters)
Qalat Sukkar (Iraq), March 27 (Reuters): US Marines treated enemy wounded today and searched the blood-stained luggage of Iraqis killed inside a bus by a storm of bullets from advancing armoured units.
Reporters counted four corpses outside the bus and Marines said another 16 lay inside. All the bodies were adult men, wearing a mixture of civilian and military clothing and had papers that appeared to identify them as Iraqi Republican Guards.
The Marines were searching the luggage for weapons, but one told Reuters that all that was found were two small handguns.
Two men who survived the attack, which appeared to have taken place yesterday, were being tended by Marine medics and being prepared for evacuation to hospital. Other survivors had apparently escaped into fields and palm tree plantations.
One Marine picked up a wallet. Inside were wedding pictures, an army membership card and a picture of the England World Cup soccer team. Cannon and machine-gun fire had peppered the bus with holes, killing most of the passengers in their seats.
The grisly remains were evidence of the ruthless efficiency with which lead Marine units are clearing the road north of the central city of Nasiriyah to make way for a huge military convoy. Reporters have seen more than a dozen burnt-out trucks and buses and the corpses of at least 60 Iraqi men lying beside them during a three-day push out of Nasiriyah, where Marines suffered up to 10 fatalities during ambushes on Saturday.
The US deaths, the largest daily toll so far in the week-old war, have put the Marines on the defensive. Since the weekend they have laid down heavy covering fire as they go through towns, while insisting they are taking care to spare civilians.
Pick-up trucks with Iraqi families have been seen on the road, untouched by the fast-moving, scouting vehicles that have picked off the trucks and buses with their heavy cannon and machine-guns. But civilians have died in cross-fire in towns.
It was impossible for reporters to see if any of the drivers or passengers killed in the road attacks were civilians. US officers said they believed the dead were men being sent to reinforce the defence of Iraqi towns.
US officers inside this small town 220 km south-east of Baghdad said the threat they faced from irregular forces trying to stage ambushes required an aggressive approach.
Brigadier General John Kelly, visiting the front-line forces, told Reuters he had himself seen armed men dismounting from civilian buses.
“That’s the problem we face here. We have very little time to decide if a truck or bus is going to be hostile,” he said.
The Marines were attacked by an apparent suicide truck bomb in Nasiriyah at the weekend, he said. The vehicle blew up with an enormous blast when shots were fired into it.
The “rules of engagement” for the US/British invasion of Iraq normally require clear evidence a target is of a military nature or is armed and hostile before it can be fired upon.
Resistance by Iraqi irregular non-uniformed units have slowed the Marine advance and forced them into skirmishes in urban areas that they would have preferred to avoid. But Kelly said the hold-ups were not dramatic.
“We were delayed a little but we’re basically on our timeline,” he said.
Marine forces are heading north toward Kut, a major city on the Tigris river some 170 km (105 miles) southeast of Baghdad, in an apparent bid to pressure the capital from its eastern flanks. Kut was the scene of a major British defeat in World War One.
Much larger and more heavily armoured army and Marine forces are massing west and south of the Iraqi capital as the U.S. and British forces press on with their week-old campaign to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Kelly said Iraqi civilians have generally been“very positive” towards the invasion force.
But the Marine defensive tactics used in Qal'at Sukkar and other towns, where houses fronting main streets were raked with fire and tall buildings singled out for a pounding as potential observation posts, will have won them few friends.
As the convoy left Qal'at Sukkar on Thursday a large crowd of Iraqi men and children gathered on the main highway behind them. The crowd said nothing, just silently watched as their violent overnight guests departed.
(Writing by Sean Maguire; editing by John Baggaley))