After harrowing 72 hours, soldiers get respite
CENTRAL IRAQ (CNN) -- After braving nearly constant fire for some 72 hours and spending a tense night hoping that friendly bombers overhead would stop an armored Iraqi column apparently heading their way, the U.S. Army's 3-7th Cavalry got a break Thursday when reinforcements provided a chance to go to the back of the line.
The B-52 bombers and ground-based artillery smashed the Iraqi convoy overnight before it could reach the troops northeast of Najaf, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, soldiers in the field told CNN's Walter Rodgers, who is embedded with the 3-7th.
Iraqi officials, speaking in Baghdad, gave a different version of the fighting around Najaf.
Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmed said U.S. forces tried to encircle Najaf but failed to do so when they "sustained heavy casualties."
Officials at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Qatar on Thursday said they had no information to support the report that "a large number" of Iraqi vehicles had been headed "anywhere."
But the 3-7th, which had been told as many as 1,000 vehicles were headed their way, didn't know that until morning. And they definitely heard bombers hitting something ahead of them.
"We just got everything set and prepared for the worst," said 1st Sgt. Todd Woodhall when the cavalry's reinforcements had arrived. "All you can do is hope that the guys up front with the big tanks are doing the right thing."
The B-52s, he said, were "a blessing, but they were awfully loud and awfully close."
'At times you could see rockets flying over the vehicle'
Sgt. Paul Wheatley, tasked with guarding the Euphrates River bridgehead that some military officials believed the Iraqis were coming after, said the long lonely night was "very scary."
"But I also knew the Air Force had picked them up and just hoped they would take care of it before they got there," he said.
But before that frightening night began, the soldiers of the 3-7th Cavalry had driven through a blinding sandstorm with enemy fire coming at them from both sides of the road -- a "machine gun alley" that left military vehicles with bullet holes but the squadron sound, if not wholly safe.
At the start of the harrowing 72 hours, the 3-7th first pushed over the Euphrates River with the help of helicopter air power, but the cavalry quickly came under fire from Iraqi mortars. After a pitched battle that saw some 300 Iraqi soldiers killed, the squadron moved out on the road away from the river.
Then the sandstorm became a major factor in the advance, limiting air support for the relatively small scouting unit well out in front of the larger 3rd Infantry Division.
"It was pretty intense for a lengthy period of time," Woodhall said. "A lot of small arms flying over the vehicles, a lot of artillery, mortars, a lot of radio traffic, telling you to look left, look right, at times you could see rockets flying over the vehicle.
"If you could see it flying, that's a good thing," he said. "But it'll wake you up and keep you very tense and scared."
Rodgers sent live satellite images of the treacherous ride through the sandstorm's yellow glow. At times, the tank in front of him was barely visible, but always the sound of rifle fire, artillery fire and the dings of bullets on metal created a sobering background.
He was able to broadcast the capture of three Iraqi soldiers who were caught driving a truckload of weapons.
Then came word late Wednesday that Army intelligence reports indicated the cavalry's position was threatened by a 1,000-strong Iraqi convoy headed south toward them on an apparent collision course.
The column was believed to have been made up of troops from Iraq's elite Republican Guard and was reported to be moving rapidly toward Najaf despite the heavy sandstorm, according to officers from the squadron.
U.S. military officials said later they weren't aware of such a large movement, but that Republican Guard elements were repositioning -- under cover of the sandstorm -- around the Iraqi capital.
But no matter how many Iraqi vehicles were headed toward the cavalry, air traffic controllers with the U.S. Air Force told Rodgers that "wave after wave" of the bombers "pounded" the convoy "almost into oblivion."
When the sun rose on Thursday, the sandstorm was gone, and reinforcements from the 3rd Infantry were in place.
The 7th Cavalry moved to the back of the line, but even there the squadron could not completely relax.
While Rodgers was on air with Wheatley, the "incoming" alarm sounded. The sergeant and the correspondent looked into the sky and spotted a pair of vapor trails in the clouds.
"We may have to break off this live shot," Rodgers said, and seconds later, "Bye -- we've got to dive for vehicles."
As it turned out, the contrails were from coalition missiles. But after surviving 72 hours of a most fearsome military advance, soldiers and reporters alike preferred not take a chance.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This report was written in accordance with Pentagon ground rules allowing so-called embedded reporting, in which journalists join deployed troops. Among the rules accepted by all participating news organizations is an agreement not to disclose sensitive operational details.