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Guts, but little glory: Marines do grueling mop-up

Frustrating chase of Iraqi fighters, far from cheering crowds

By Alessio Vinci

CNN correspondent Alessio Vinci takes notes while Lance Cpl. Marques Morris of Albany, Georgia, rests inside an amphibious assault vehicle in Iraq.
CNN correspondent Alessio Vinci takes notes while Lance Cpl. Marques Morris of Albany, Georgia, rests inside an amphibious assault vehicle in Iraq.

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CNN's Alessio Vinci reports on U.S. Marines as they move across Iraq.
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In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and newsmakers around the world.

NEAR BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- When U.S. forces entered  Baghdad I was with a company of U.S. Marines about 40 miles south of the Iraqi capital. CNN had no reporters there, all of them had been expelled by the Iraqi authorities. My colleague Walter Rodgers was with the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division, reporting from Saddam International Airport, since then renamed Baghdad International Airport.

I was listening to the latest news on a shortwave radio... U.S. soldiers and Marines were fighting on the outskirts of Baghdad... tanks were approaching the western bridges of the Euphrates River.  

At 4 o'clock in the morning the commanding officer of the Marine company received the order to be prepared to move in less than two hours. I thought: "Great, we are close and we will get closer!" For reporters on assignment in Iraq,  covering the fall of Baghdad was an event not to miss.

As the convoy of heavy amphibious assault vehicles (or AAVs) staged on the main highway I noticed something terribly wrong. They were all facing south! I asked our commander whether we were going to Baghdad ... his answer was polite: "No sir, our orders are to move toward the city of Al Amarah. That's southeast from here. There are reports that remnants of the Iraqi 10th Armored Division are regrouping."

The reason why I say that his answer was polite is because I could tell that he was greatly disappointed, perhaps as much as I was. U.S. troops are entering Baghdad and we are making a 180-degree turnaround to move in the opposite direction?

I wanted to leave the unit badly. But the rules of the Pentagon's "embed program" are that you have to remain with your assigned unit. "Disembedding" is an option, but one that needs to be coordinated with both CNN World Headquarters in Atlanta and the Department of Defense. There was no time for that, so with my stomach hurting (it happens when I know something terribly wrong is happening) I jumped onto one of the armored vehicles for the journey down south

"Initially I thought we were going to the south to support the British military effort in Basra,"  a senior officer with my unit told me, "We did not mind too much not going to Baghdad.  All we want is a mission". But the events turned out differently. We never made it to Basra, and spent five days zigzagging eastern and central Iraq chasing – we were told – the remnants of the Iraqi 10th Armored Division and a general who refused to surrender.

This is a broken wheel from an M1A1 Abrams tank. Spare parts were not available to fix the tank, so it sat in a field awaiting repairs.
This is a broken wheel from an M1A1 Abrams tank. Spare parts were not available to fix the tank, so it sat in a field awaiting repairs.

As U.S. troops arrived in Al Amarah, Iraqi tanks had been abandoned in the outskirts of the city, and U.S. special forces – who preceded the Marines – had already secured the area.

Less than 24 hours after arriving in the area around the city of Al Amarah, the company radio crackled a new order:   "We will depart and set up our staging area in the city of Qalat Sukkar -- hard copy over."

Capt. Tim Newland, commander of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, looked up and told me: "It is time to go again."

"We have done more movement in this last week than I figured we would do the whole time over here," he said, "I'd like to see the bigger picture, I'd like to know and probably help us understand why we had to travel 200 kilometers that way, 200 kilometers back, and now we go back again. I'd like to see the big picture."

The reality on the ground is that the equipment -- especially the tanks and armored vehicles -- cannot keep up with the hectic pace of continuous movement. 

Tanks nicknamed "death mobiles" [M1A1 Abrams battle tanks] are no longer that mobile -- portions of the road wheels were completely chewed up and there are no spare parts available.

Staff Sgt. George Insko, leaning on his tank, is worried: "Our major concern is having a breakdown when we are in the middle of a firefight because we will be like sitting ducks...The problem is the speed of the advance -- if you can call it an advance running around in circles -- and not getting parts and not having enough time to do maintenance on the tanks."

Capt. Tim Newland, commander of Bravo Company:
Capt. Tim Newland, commander of Bravo Company: "I'd like to see the big picture."

For the record,  one death mobile did not make it to the end of the day and is now sitting in a field waiting for spare parts.

The constant movement is also taking a toll on the troops.  At every stop they have to dig foxholes... which takes hours...  only to fill them up again hours later before leaving.

"It's a security concern" Cpl. Christopher Morse tells me. "If we did not cover them up the enemy could establish how many of us sit in a hole, or what we eat and how we position ourselves. "Holes"  he says  with a grin.  "Start the hole, stop the hole and start the hole again ... I have to keep going. I hate holes though. "

Traveling across Iraq in an amphibious assault vehicle is a grueling experience. The harsh rumbling of the engine. Breathing in the diesel fumes spewing from the engine felt like drinking an acid cocktail of deadly poison. There is barely room to stand up, let alone move around  in the vehicle.  

We travel at about 20 miles per hour, on average, with frequent stops (about every hour-and-a-half) for  maintenance checks. Traveling a distance of 150 miles takes an entire day at the end of which  the vehicles must be refueled, engine running while everyone remains inside the vehicle.  At night refueling can take up to five hours.  After an 18-hour drive, it can be brutal.

During one of those refueling stops I turned my short wave radio on. A journalist in Baghdad  is reporting an American armored vehicle  is helping Baghdad residents topple a statue of Saddam Hussein.  It must have been a powerful image. One I will have to wait to see. Out here with the U.S. military there is no TV and little means to find out what is happening elsewhere.

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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