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Fighting sandstorms and friendly fire

By Alessio Vinci

CNN's Alessio Vinci
CNN's Alessio Vinci

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CNN's Alessio Vinci reports on intense fighting around Nasiriya, Iraq. (March 25)
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In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and newsmakers around the world.

SOUTHERN IRAQ (CNN) -- I am traveling with the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment. We are in the middle of one of the nastiest sandstorms so far here, which is having the immediate effect to stop all fighting around the city of Nasiriya. To make matters even worse, it is now raining.

I am using a telephone to file news reports because it would be virtually impossible to use the videophone with this kind of weather. The panel of antennas that we need to open up to use that technology would definitely fly away.

Overnight the battle between U.S. Marines and Iraqi forces continued fiercely. The fighting was so intense that a unit of U.S. Marines mistakenly took nearby U.S. forces as opposing troops and began shooting in our direction -- we were embedded with those forces.

One of the Marines in our area was wounded in his shoulder and immediately evacuated. This confusion occurred in the middle of the night, while other Marines frantically were trying to identify themselves by using chemical lights and special signs.

Certain measures can help ward off friendly fire, including use of signals or special lights. The problem -- and I noticed it when we came under fire -- was that up until that moment we had been asked not to use any kind of lights. We couldn't even use the red lights. We could not use our computers. I couldn't even use a phone because obviously the display of the phone makes a little bit of a gleam of light.

We were told to stay in total darkness and not to give away any position of the Marines and those of us with them. The moment we started receiving incoming fire by U.S. forces, then the U.S. Marines began using their chemical lights and all kinds of signals. These moves obviously not only signaled to the other U.S. forces where we were but also gave the position to the Iraqis -- naturally a problem.

U.S. commanders in this region are attributing the stiff resistance in Nasiriya to paramilitary groups. They're saying that all but a few of the regular units of the Iraqi army at this point and in this area have been defeated or in any case largely downsized.

But they are telling us that the stiff resistance comes mainly by the Saddam Fedayeen, which is a paramilitary group in Iraq numbering about 30,000, according to U.S. military intelligence officers.

They are of great concern to U.S. forces because one of the Fedayeen fighters' tactics is to mingle among civilians, officials said. U.S. troops are seeking to destroy those forces while at the same time trying to avoid civilian casualties.

But if the Fedayeen fighters mingle among civilians, the U.S. Marines said they have no choice but to shoot in their direction.

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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