| Iraqis fleeing Baghdad cheer oncoming Marines |
|Dexter Filkins, New York Times|
|Published April 4, 2003||CIVI04|
AZIZIYAH, IRAQ -- Iraqi civilians streamed out of Baghdad and surrounding cities Thursday as U.S. Marines approaching the capital from the southeast raced ahead to farmlands just beyond the city's edge.
The bulk of the 1st Marine Division crossed the Tigris River on Thursday and wheeled northward, pausing to crush a group of several hundred Iraqi soldiers who stood and fought.
By nightfall, the lead Marine units were within 25 miles of the outskirts of the capital, forming a vise with the 3rd Infantry on the western side of the city.
As the Marines pushed northward along Hwy. 6, hundreds of Iraqi civilians passed them fleeing south, cheering and encouraging the troops as they passed. It was one of the first signs of a large movement of people out of Baghdad since bombing began two weeks ago, and one of the warmest receptions the Americans have received.
The Iraqis leaving in buses, cars and taxis said the city was no longer safe. One man drove himself and his family south on a motorcycle and sidecar, another in a 1954 Dodge pickup. A third man, standing in the bed of a pickup, shouted the only words in English he knew. "George Bush!" he cried, whizzing past.
Even some Iraqi soldiers jumped aboard the southbound vehicles, hoping to make an escape. Many Iraqis, fearful of the armada streaming past them, waved white flags, some fashioned out of sheets and T-shirts. One woman waved a pair of her husband's boxer shorts.
"You have saved us, you have saved us from him," exclaimed Alawih Hussein, pausing as he drove his battered red Toyota pickup south on Hwy. 6. Hussein's wife, who sat next to her husband, was so effusive in her joy that she had to pause several times to suck on a pocket inhaler.
"I love you," she said in English, panting and weeping. "I love you."
The outpouring by the Iraqis marked a break with past days, when the reception from townspeople had often been more muted. For days, as U.S. troops swept through the country, Iraqis often refrained from offering their opinions, fearful of reprisals, some said, especially if Saddam Hussein survived. But on Thursday, as the scope of the U.S.-led military effort became apparent, Iraqis seemed to feel little urge to keep their emotions in check.
The warm reception, coupled with the rapid progress of the troops, lent an air of momentary jubilation to the Marine convoy.
At one point earlier Thursday, the Marines were moving north at such a torrid pace that troop carriers, going 40 miles per hour, shredded the outer skin of their tank treads.
There was no resistance to speak of, and the road seemed clear. The convoy moved so quickly toward Baghdad that Marine commanders had to stop to draw up another map.
"The general has taken the leash off," said Lt. Col. Sam Strotman, pausing on a hill about 55 miles south of Baghdad. "We've got orders to go as far as we can go."
Battle for Aziziyah
The mood changed quickly when the Marines ran into a large force of Iraqis guarding the approach to Aziziyah. Some officers said the Iraqi force represented a portion of the Al Nida Division of the Republican Guard, parts of which U.S. officials think have retreated into the southern suburbs of Baghdad.
Late Thursday night, Marine officers said they had located a large group of tanks dug into the earth, believed to be the main Al Nida force. They began airstrikes and prepared to attack in the morning.
The fighting in Aziziyah lasted much of the day, with the Americans calling in airstrikes from B-52 bombers, Super Cobra helicopter gunships and F/A-18 Hornet jets. By the time the Marines passed through the city in the late afternoon, the guns had fallen quiet. Buildings in the city were still burning when the Marines finally drove through.
The Marines continued a pattern of bypassing urban areas as they sweep toward their main objective: Baghdad. In Aziziyah, they stormed past the town, and then, with the Iraqis surrounded, turned and attacked them from two sides. The Marines captured just enough of the city to enable them to build a pontoon bridge across the Tigris.
Inside Aziziyah, the Americans' arrival seemed to leave the city in chaos. When a reporter showed up, a crowd gathered, claiming that U.S. bombs had killed 50 Iraqi civilians in airstrikes the night before. Some of the people said that they supported the U.S. effort to overthrow Saddam but that the bombing had been indiscriminate.
"Please give a message to George Bush," said Abdul Karim, a shopkeeper. "Tell him to stop dropping bombs on women and children."
Soon, another man appeared, saying the reports of civilian casualties in the city had been exaggerated.
The second man, who said he managed a taxi stand, declined to give his name. He said most of those killed in the fighting over the past 24 hours had been members of the Baath Party and Republican Guard.
"The wounded inside the hospital are all Republican Guard," he said.
As the sun began to set, it was unclear whether the Baath Party, or anyone else, was in control of Aziziyah. Some residents said the Baath Party members had fled during the fight with the Americans; others said they were still in charge.
"Don't go there," the taxi stand manager said. "The Baath Party is still inside the town."
Up and down Hwy. 6, many Iraqi soldiers had taken advantage of the chaos to flee. Marines reported seeing discarded military uniforms along the road.
A few miles south of Aziziyah, a chaotic scene unfolded on the roadside when a group of Marines stopped and searched three passenger buses.
Checking identification cards, the Americans pulled aside about 30 Iraqi men who they claimed were soldiers. At noontime, those prisoners sat in a makeshift barbed-wire prison. The rest of the Iraqis, perhaps 300 of them, sat huddled on the roadside, yelling and shouting at the Americans to let them through.
The Marines, with only one Arabic translator at their disposal, tried to insist on an orderly process of allowing the Iraqis to board their buses. But groups of Iraqi men, eager to get home, dashed to the buses anyway.
"Sit down and shut up," screamed one U.S. sergeant to an uncomprehending Iraqi man.
Under a sweltering sun, many of the Iraqis, including an elderly man named Hussein, lost their tempers. Hussein, who had left Baghdad two days earlier, finally exploded in frustration to a Marine sergeant.
"This is between you and Saddam," Hussein said, jabbing a finger. "You can have him. Do anything you want with him. But let me go home."