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At the Front: 'Unimaginable' firefight lasts 72 hours

Iraqi troops 'shooting rifles at tanks'

From Walter Rodgers

Wheatley: "I went behind the sight with the gunner and we engaged everything we could engage."

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CENTRAL IRAQ (CNN) -- In our War Stories series, CNN correspondents tell the story of war through the perspective of one person living through, recovering from or fighting the war in Iraq.

CNN's Walter Rodgers has been accompanying the 3-7th Cavalry as it moves north through Iraq. Tank machine gunner Sgt. 1st Class Paul Wheatley feels for the Iraqi troops.

As Wheatley and his 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry unit rolled up central Iraq's "Machine Gun Alley" this week, they took nearly constant fire. In the dark and in a sandstorm, they took fire.

The Iraqis shot at them for 72 hours with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). And Wheatley's unit -- Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles -- routed them.

"It was sad," Wheatley said Thursday. "They were forced to fight against odds they would never have a chance to overcome -- shooting rifles at tanks. They are driving Toyota pickup trucks at Bradleys and tanks. I couldn't even explain it."

Until Thursday, when it was temporarily relieved, the 3-7th was the "tip of the spear," lead element of the 3rd Infantry Division on the way to Baghdad, putting themselves out to receive the first frenzied shots.

The experience left Wheatley stumbling for words: "It's unreal. It's unimaginable. You're constantly almost paranoid. You are paranoid about every turn, every building or every person. And it's a little nerve-wracking at times."

'Blaze of tracers'

During a night ambush, Iraqi troops shot "some RPGs at the convoy we were in, at the column we were in," Wheatley said. His gunners picked up targets on their thermal sites and the fight broke open.

"Just a blaze of tracers coming from both sides of the road and mainly from the left side of the road. ... I went behind the sight with the gunner and we engaged everything we could engage."

Wheatley was handling a medium-size 7.62 mm machine gun.

Bullets ricocheted off the side of his tank. "It was almost like somebody was throwing rocks. But, against the side of a car when you kick up rocks."

"They were probably 150 meters away," he estimated. That far away, "their AK-47s won't do too much damage to a tank."

The RPGs couldn't have done much against the tank either, he said. "If you don't see it and just feel the percussion from it, not much is going to happen. ... But if you're hanging out of the hatch, it could mess you up pretty bad."

Wheatley said he didn't know how many Iraqis he took out. "I wouldn't even begin to guess. Probably 30-35. During that one stretch of road."

Sandstorm skirmish

The next day the unit took more "Machine Gun Alley" fire. The desert winds had kicked up a sandstorm, but the result was the same as the night before.

"We could see through thermal sites," he said. "You could see what was shooting at you. With our gun tube orientation, everybody kept their sector and we kept rolling and we engaged all the way through."

By Wednesday night, he was northeast of Najaf, guarding the Euphrates River bridgehead. The unit stopped there, waiting for reinforcements to catch up.

As reports showed an Iraqi convoy apparently moving their way, Wheatley stood watch. He could feel the blasts of B-52 bombers attacking the convoy. "The wind was blowing bad," he said, "you could feel it more than hear it."

Due to the B-52s, the Iraqi convoy did not reach his unit. Reinforcements arrived the following day.

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.

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