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Penhaul on life for Iraqi civilians trying to survive in a war zone

CNN's Karl Penhaul
CNN's Karl Penhaul

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SAMAWAH, Iraq (CNN) -- CNN Correspondent Karl Penhaul is with the 11th Attack Helicopter Regiment of the U.S. Army V Corps in Iraq. He filed this report.

PENHAUL: It was past midnight and a group of the young American soldiers sitting atop the open-topped truck were singing Irish drinking songs.

Moments later an NCO shouted, "Lock and load." The singing stopped. The only sound heard was the chink of bullets dropping into the chambers of the M4 assault rifles and grenades plopping into launchers.

A convoy of the 82nd U.S. Airborne Division soldiers headed out of the Iraqi military barracks they had occupied days earlier and rumbled toward downtown Samawah, a city of 180,000 reputed to be a stronghold of Saddam Hussein's Fedayeen militia.

U.S. soldiers peered silently through night-vision goggles over the side of the truck into the darkness. Apache attack helicopters whirled overhead, protecting the advance of tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles.

As the first rays of dawn came, the column had reached one of its main objectives, a metal bridge spanning the Euphrates. A machine gun rat-tatted across the other side of the river.

The platoon rose as one, crouched low and rushed across the bridge to the north side of town.

Above the palm trees some 200 yards off, Apache helicopters spat 30 mm rounds and the occasional rocket.

Troops moved forward block by block, hunting for cover behind crumbling mud-brick walls and houses.

Engineers and sappers laid explosive charges at the doors of military and police barracks and the headquarters of the Baath party.

The city seemed deserted, except for a few Iraqi fighters mounting small pockets of resistance.

Then from nowhere emerged a large group of Iraqis -- an old man, several young boys and a stream of women enveloped in black chadors -- that began crossing a major intersection overlooked by Humvees.

U.S. soldiers hustled them to cover and through an interpreter ordered them to cross the nearest bridge to the south side of town. Uncertainly, they scuttled away.

As the family moved off, a .50-caliber machine gun barked. Up the street, flames leapt off a station wagon. It had been heading toward three U.S. Humvees and failed to heed a soldier's order to halt.

Later inspection revealed two charred bodies in the front seats. A third body lay in a pool of blood a few feet away. The back of the station wagon was packed with 36 propane gas cylinders.

As the morning wore on and gunfire became more sporadic, the ghost town came to life.

Women, children and men in long robes appeared from the doorways of their homes.

Edgy U.S. soldiers raised their rifles again, using hand signs to order men to kneel and lie on their bellies in the dirt before moving over and strapping plastic handcuffs around their wrists.

One elderly man raised his hands and crouched, but declined to lie head first. Three soldiers shouted and pushed him to the ground.

A woman and a young girl popped their heads out of their home to plead with the troops. They, too, found themselves staring down the barrel of an M4 rifle and being marched across to a holding area for potential prisoners. Many of those initially detained were later released.

Some of the last Iraqi civilians to limp out of their homes were the wounded, still stunned from the percussion and shrapnel from artillery. One man, Karim, wore a scrap of cloth around his head and another over his knee. He sobbed as he explained his father, Mohammed, had been killed.

Another man, Ali, lifted the edge of a blanket inside a mud-brick home. Only Mohammed's torso was there. A leg lay over by the kitchen sink, and flesh was spattered up the stairwell. A hole was blasted through the door. With his few words of English, Ali pointed and said matter-of-factly: "American bomb."

His claim was not immediately possible to verify. A combat medic, Lt. Paul Allen, said later it "would not be safe to speculate" that American munitions had killed the man.

Two medics made their way into the neighboring house. They treated Karim's wife for an abdominal wound and lifted her onto a stretcher for a short journey to a U.S. medical post on the outskirts of town.

She was later flown out on a Black Hawk helicopter for more intensive treatment. Karim's daughter, Horaa, and young son, Moamal, sat for a while with medics on the sidewalk near their home, receiving treatment for shrapnel wounds.

Horaa whimpered as she flashed her big brown eyes left and right. Moamal just sat silent, opening his mouth like a little sparrow from time to time as a U.S. soldier fed him from an MRE (Meal-Ready-to-Eat) pack.

A short while later, Karim hobbled off down the street.

He was looking for a box to place the remains of his father, Mohammed. He planned to take the box to the mosque a block away.

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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