| An American soldier carries an Iraqi boy who was injured during a heavy battle. (AP)
Near Karbala, April 1: As an unidentified four-wheel drive vehicle came barrelling towards an intersection held by troops of the US Army’s 3rd Infantry Division on Monday afternoon, Captain Ronny Johnson grew increasingly alarmed. From his position at the intersection, he was heard radioing to one of his forward platoons of M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles to alert it to what he described as a potential threat.
“Fire a warning shot,” he ordered as the vehicle kept coming.
Then, with increasing urgency, he told the platoon to shoot a 7.62-mm machine-gun round into its radiator. “Stop (messing) around!” Johnson yelled into the company radio network when he still saw no action being taken. Finally, he shouted at the top of his voice, “Stop him, Red 1, stop him!”
That order was immediately followed by 25-mm cannon fire from one or more of the platoon’s Bradleys. About half-a-dozen shots were heard in all.
“Cease fire!” Johnson yelled over the radio. Then, as he peered into his binoculars from the intersection on Highway 9, he roared at the platoon leader: “You just (expletive) killed a family because you didn’t fire a warning shot soon enough!”'
So it was that on a warm, hazy day in central Iraq, the fog of war descended on Bravo Company.
Fifteen Iraqi civilians were packed inside the Toyota, it turned out, along with as many of their possessions as the jammed vehicle could hold. Ten of them, including five children who appeared to be under five years old, were killed on the spot when the high-explosive rounds slammed into their target, Johnson’s company reported.
“It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen, and I hope I never see it again,” Sgt Mario Manzano, 26, an army medic, said later. He said one of the wounded women sat in the vehicle holding the mangled bodies of two of her children. “She didn’t want to get out of the car.”
The tragedy cast a pall over the company as it sat in positions it occupied on Sunday on this key stretch of Highway 9 at the intersection of a road leading to the town of Hilla, about 14 miles to the east, near the Euphrates river. The Toyota was coming from that direction.
Dealing with the gruesome scene was a new experience for many of the US soldiers deployed here, and they debated how the tragedy could have been avoided. Several said they accepted the platoon leader’s explanation to Johnson that he had fired two warning shots, but that the driver failed to stop. Johnson, a former army Ranger who parachuted into Panama in 1989, had fought in the 1991 Gulf War and rose through the ranks.
And everybody was edgy, they realised, since four US soldiers were blown up by a suicide bomber on Saturday at a checkpoint much like theirs, only 20 miles to the south.
The soldiers of Bravo Company had their own reasons to be edgy. The Bradley of the 3rd Battalion’s operations officer, Maj. Roger Shuck, was fired on with a rocket-propelled grenade a couple of miles south of Karbala.
No one in the vehicle was seriously injured, but Shuck had difficulty breathing afterwards and had to be treated with oxygen, medics said.
That happened after a column of M-1 Abrams tanks headed north to Karbala in the early afternoon and returned a couple of hours later. Throughout the day, Iraqis lobbed periodic mortar volleys at the US troops, and Iraqi militiamen and soldiers tried to penetrate the US lines.
It was in the late afternoon, that the men of Bravo Company saw the blue Toyota coming down the road and reacted. After the shooting, US medics evacuated survivors to US lines south of here. One woman escaped without a scratch.
Another, who had superficial head wounds, was flown to a US field hospital when it was learned she was pregnant.
Three of the survivors were allowed to return to the vehicle and recover the bodies of their loved ones. Medics gave the group 10 body bags. US officials offered an unspecified amount of money to compensate them.
“They wanted to bury them before the dogs got to them,” said Corporal Brian Truenow, 28.
(The Pentagon issued a statement in Washington saying the vehicle was fired on after the driver ignored shouted orders and warning shots. The shooting, it said, is under investigation. According to the Pentagon account, the vehicle was a van carrying “13 women and children”. Seven were killed, two were injured and four were unharmed, it said, without mentioning any men.)