The light was a strange yellowy grey and the wind was coming up, the beginnings of a sandstorm. The silence felt almost eerie after a night of shooting so intense it hurt the eardrums and shattered the nerves. My footsteps felt heavy on the hot, dusty asphalt as I walked slowly towards the bridge at Nasiriya. A horrific scene lay ahead.
Some 15 vehicles, including a minivan and a couple of trucks, blocked the road. They were riddled with bullet holes. Some had caught fire and turned into piles of black twisted metal. Others were still burning.
Amid the wreckage I counted 12 dead civilians, lying in the road or in nearby ditches. All had been trying to leave this southern town overnight, probably for fear of being killed by US helicopter attacks and heavy artillery.
Their mistake had been to flee over a bridge that is crucial to the coalition’s supply lines and to run into a group of shell-shocked young American marines with orders to shoot anything that moved.
One man’s body was still in flames. It gave out a hissing sound. Tucked away in his breast pocket, thick wads of banknotes were turning to ashes. His savings, perhaps.
Down the road, a little girl, no older than five and dressed in a pretty orange and gold dress, lay dead in a ditch next to the body of a man who may have been her father. Half his head was missing.
Nearby, in a battered old Volga, peppered with ammunition holes, an Iraqi woman _ perhaps the girl’s mother _ was dead, slumped in the back seat. A US Abrams tank nicknamed Ghetto Fabulous drove past the bodies.
This was not the only family who had taken what they thought was a last chance for safety. A father, baby girl and boy lay in a shallow grave. On the bridge itself a dead Iraqi civilian lay next to the carcass of a donkey.
As I walked away, Lieutenant Matt Martin, whose third child, Isabella, was born while he was on board ship en route to the Gulf, appeared beside me.
"Did you see all that?" he asked, his eyes filled with tears. "Did you see that little baby girl? I carried her body and buried it as best I could but I had no time. It really gets to me to see children being killed like this, but we had no choice."
Martin’s distress was in contrast to the bitter satisfaction of some of his fellow marines as they surveyed the scene. "The Iraqis are sick people and we are the chemotherapy," said Corporal Ryan Dupre. "I am starting to hate this country. Wait till I get hold of a friggin’ Iraqi. No, I won’t get hold of one. I’ll just kill him."
Only a few days earlier these had still been the bright-eyed small-town boys with whom I crossed the border at the start of the operation. They had rolled towards Nasiriya, a strategic city beside the Euphrates, on a mission to secure a safe supply route for troops on the way to Baghdad.
They had expected a welcome, or at least a swift surrender. Instead they had found themselves lured into a bloody battle, culminating in the worst coalition losses of the war _ 16 dead, 12 wounded and two missing marines as well as five dead and 12 missing servicemen from an army convoy _ and the humiliation of having prisoners paraded on Iraqi television.
There are three key bridges at Nasiriya. The feat of Martin, Dupre and their fellow marines in securing them under heavy fire was compared by armchair strategists last week to the seizure of the Remagen bridge over the Rhine, which significantly advanced victory over Germany in the second world war.
But it was also the turning point when the jovial band of brothers from America lost all their assumptions about the war and became jittery aggressors who talked of wanting to "nuke" the place.
None of this was foreseen at Camp Shoup, one of the marines’ tent encampments in northern Kuwait, where officers from the 1st and 2nd battalions of Task Force Tarawa, the 7,000-strong US Marines brigade, spent long evenings poring over maps and satellite imagery before the invasion.
The plan seemed straightforward. The marines would speed unhindered over the 130 miles of desert up from the Kuwaiti border and approach Nasiriya from the southeast to secure a bridge over the Euphrates. They would then drive north through the outskirts of Nasiriya to a second bridge, over the Inahr al-Furbati canal. Finally, they would turn west and secure the third bridge, also over the canal. The marines would not enter the city proper, let alone attempt to take it.
The coalition could then start moving thousands of troops and logistical support units up highway 7, leading to Baghdad, 225 miles to the north.
There was only one concern: "ambush alley", the road connecting the first two bridges. But intelligence suggested there would be little or no fighting as this eastern side of the city was mostly "pro-American".
I was with Alpha company. We reached the outskirts of Nasiriya at about breakfast time last Sunday. Some marines were disappointed to be carrying out a mission that seemed a sideshow to the main effort. But in an ominous sign of things to come, our battalion stopped in its tracks, three miles outside the city.
Bad news filtered back. Earlier that morning a US Army convoy had been greeted by a group of Iraqis dressed in civilian clothes, apparently wanting to surrender. When the American soldiers stopped, the Iraqis pulled out AK-47s and sprayed the US trucks with gunfire.
Five wounded soldiers were rescued by our convoy, including one who had been shot four times. The attackers were believed to be members of the Fedayeen Saddam, a group of 15,000 fighters under the command of Saddam’s psychopathic son Uday.
Blown-up tyres, a pool of blood, spent ammunition and shards of glass from the bulletridden windscreen marked the spot where the ambush had taken place. Swiftly, our AAVs (23-ton amphibious assault vehicles) took up defensive positions. About 100 marines jumped out of their vehicles and took cover in ditches, pointing their sights at a mud-caked house. Was it harbouring gunmen? Small groups of marines approached, cautiously, to search for the enemy. A dozen terrified civilians, mainly women and children, emerged with their hands raised.
"It’s just a bunch of Hajis," said one gunner from his turret, using their nickname for Arabs. "Friggin’ women and children, that’s all."
Cobras and Huey attack helicopters began firing missiles at targets on the edge of the city. Plumes of smoke rose as heavy artillery shook the ground under our feet.
Heavy machinegun fire echoed across the huge rubbish dump that marks the entrance to Nasiriya. Suddenly there was return fire from three large oil tanks at a refinery. The Cobras were called back, and within seconds they roared above our heads, firing off missiles in clouds of purple tracer fire.
There were several loud explosions. Flames burst high into the sky from one of the oil tanks. The marines believed that what opposition there was had now been crushed. "We are going in, we are going in," shouted one of the officers.
More than 20 AAVs, several tanks and about 10 Hummers equipped with roof-mounted, anti-tank missile launchers prepared to move in. Crammed inside them were some 400 marines. Tension rose as they loaded their guns and stuck their heads over the side of the AAVs through the open roof, their M-16 pointed in all directions.
As we set off towards the eastern city gate there was no sense of the mayhem awaiting us down the road. A few locals dressed in rags watched the awesome spectacle of America’s war machine on the move. Nobody waved.
Slowly we approached the first bridge. Fires were raging on either side of the road; Cobras had destroyed an Iraqi military truck and a T55 tank positioned inside a dugout. Powerful explosions came from inside the bowels of the tank as its ammunition and heavy shells were set off by the fire. With each explosion a thick and perfect ring of black smoke ring puffed out of the turret.
An Iraqi defence post lay abandoned. Cobras flew over an oasis of palm trees and deserted brick and mud-caked houses. We charged onto the bridge, and as we crossed the Euphrates, a large mural of Saddam came into view. Some marines reached for their disposable cameras.
Suddenly, as we approached ambush alley on the far side of the bridge, the crackle of AK-47s broke out. Our AAVs began to zigzag to avoid being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG).
The road widened out to a square, with a mosque and the portrait of Saddam on the left-hand side. The vehicles wheeled round, took up a defensive position, back to back, and began taking fire.
Pinned down, the marines fired back with 40mm automatic grenade launchers, a weapon so powerful it can go through thick brick walls and kill anyone within a 5-yard range of where the shell lands.
I was in AAV number A304, affectionately nicknamed the Desert Caddy. It shook as Keith Bernize, the gunner, fired off round after deafening round at sandbag positions shielding suspected Fedayeen fighters. His steel ammunition box clanged with the sound of smoking empty shells and cartridges.
Bernize, who always carries a scan picture of his unborn baby daughter with him, shot at the targets from behind a turret, peering through narrow slits of reinforced glass. He shouted at his men to feed him more ammunition. Four marines, standing at the AAV’s four corners, precariously perched on ammunition boxes, fired off their M-16s.
Their faces covered in sweat, officers shouted commands into field radios, giving co-ordinates of enemy positions. Some 200 marines, fully exposed to enemy fire and slowed down by their heavy weapons, bulky ammunition packs and NBC suits, ran across the road, taking shelter behind a long brick wall and mounds of earth. A team of snipers appeared, yards from our vehicle.
The exchange of fire was relentless. We were pinned down for more than three hours as Iraqis hiding inside houses and a hospital and behind street corners fired a barrage of ammunition.
Despite the marines’ overwhelming firepower, hitting the Iraqis was not easy. The gunmen were not wearing uniforms and had planned their ambush well _ stockpiling weapons in dozens of houses, between which they moved freely pretending to be civilians.
"It’s a bad situation," said First Sergeant James Thompson, who was running around with a 9mm pistol in his hand. "We don’t know who is shooting at us. They are even using women as scouts. The women come out waving at us, or with their hands raised. We freeze, but the next minute we can see how she is looking at our positions and giving them away to the fighters hiding behind a street corner. It’s very difficult to distinguish between the fighters and civilians."
Across the square, genuine civilians were running for their lives. Many, including some children, were gunned down in the crossfire. In a surreal scene, a father and mother stood out on a balcony with their children in their arms to give them a better view of the battle raging below. A few minutes later several US mortar shells landed in front of their house. In all probability, the family is dead.
The fighting intensified. An Iraqi fighter emerged from behind a wall of sandbags 500 yards away from our vehicle. Several times he managed to fire off an RPG at our positions. Bernize and other gunners fired dozens of rounds at his dugout, punching large holes into a house and lifting thick clouds of dust.
Captain Mike Brooks, commander of Alpha company, pinned down in front of the mosque, called in tank support. Armed with only a 9mm pistol, he jumped out of the back of his AAV with a young marine carrying a field radio on his back.
Brooks, 34, from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, had been in command of 200 men for just over a year. He joined the marines when he was 19 because he felt that he was wasting his life. He needed direction, was a bit of a rebel and was impressed by the sense of pride in the corps.
He is a soft-spoken man, fair but very firm. Brave too: I watched him sprint in front of enemy positions to brief some of his junior officers behind a wall. Behind us, two 68-ton Abrams tanks rolled up, crushing the barrier separating the lanes on the highway.
The earth shook violently as one tank, Desert Knight, stopped in front of our row of AAVS and fired several 120mm shells into buildings.
A few hundred yards down ambush alley there was carnage. An AAV from Charlie company was racing back towards the bridge to evacuate some wounded marines when it was hit by two RPGs. The heavy vehicle shook but withstood the explosions.
Then the Iraqis fired again. This time the rocket plunged into the vehicle through the open rooftop. The explosion was deadly, made 10 times more powerful by the ammunition stored in the back.
The wreckage smouldered in the middle of the road. I jumped out from the rear hatch of our vehicle, briefly taking cover behind a wall. When I reached the stricken AAV, the scene was mayhem.
The heavy, thick rear ramp had been blown open. There were pools of blood and bits of flesh everywhere. A severed leg, still wearing a desert boot, lay on what was left of the ramp among playing cards, a magazine, cans of Coke and a small bloodstained teddy bear.
"They are f****** dead, they are dead. Oh my God. Get in there. Get in there now and pull them out," shouted a gunner in a state verging on hysterical.
There was panic and confusion as a group of young marines, shouting and cursing orders at one another, pulled out a maimed body.
Two men struggled to lift the body on a stretcher and into the back of a Hummer, but it would not fit inside, so the stretcher remained almost upright, the dead man’s leg, partly blown away, dangling in the air.
"We shouldn’t be here," said Lieutenant Campbell Kane, 25, who was born in Northern Ireland. "We can’t hold this. They are trying to suck us into the city and we haven’t got enough ass up here to sustain this. We need more tanks, more helicopters."
Closer to the destroyed AAV, another young marine was transfixed with fear and kept repeating: "Oh my God, I can’t believe this. Did you see his leg? It was blown off. It was blown off."
Two CH-46 helicopters, nicknamed Frogs, landed a few hundred yards away in the middle of a firefight to take away the dead and wounded.
If at first the marines felt constrained by orders to protect civilians, by now the battle had become so intense that there was little time for niceties. Cobra helicopters were ordered to fire at a row of houses closest to our positions. There were massive explosions but the return fire barely died down.
Behind us, as many as four AAVs that had driven down along the banks of the Euphrates were stuck in deep mud and coming under fire.
About 1pm, after three hours of intense fighting, the order was given to regroup and try to head out of the city in convoy. Several marines who had lost their vehicles piled into the back of ours.
We raced along ambush alley at full speed, close to a line of houses. "My driver got hit," said one of the marines who joined us, his face and uniform caked in mud. "I went to try to help him when he got hit by another RPG or a mortar. I don’t even know how many friends I have lost. I don’t care if they nuke that bloody city now. From one house they were waving while shooting at us with AKs from the next. It was insane."
There was relief when we finally crossed the second bridge to the northeast of the city in mid-afternoon. But there was more horror to come. Beside the smouldering wreckage of another AAV were the bodies of another four marines, laid out in the mud and covered with camouflage ponchos. There were body parts everywhere.
One of the dead was Second Lieutenant Fred Pokorney, 31, a marine artillery officer from Washington state. He was a big guy, whose ill-fitting uniform was the butt of many jokes. It was supposed to have been a special day for Pokorney. After 13 years of service, he was to be promoted to first lieutenant. The men of Charlie company had agreed they would all shake hands with him to celebrate as soon as they crossed the second bridge, their mission accomplished.
It didn’t happen. Pokorney made it over the second bridge and a few hundred yards down a highway through dusty flatlands before his vehicle was ambushed. Pokorney and his men had no chance. Fully loaded with ammunition, their truck exploded in the middle of the road, its remains burning for hours. Pokorney was hit in the chest by an RPG.
Another man who died was Fitzgerald Jordan, a staff sergeant from Texas. I felt numb when I heard this. I had met Jordan 10 days before we moved into Nasiriya. He was a character, always chewing tobacco and coming up to pat you on the back. He got me to fetch newspapers for him from Kuwait City. Later, we shared a bumpy ride across the desert in the back of a Humvee.
A decorated Gulf war veteran, he used to complain about having to come back to Iraq. "We should have gone all the way to Baghdad 12 years ago when we were here and had a real chance of removing Saddam."
Now Pokorney, Jordan and their comrades lay among unspeakable carnage. An older marine walked by carrying a huge chunk of flesh, so maimed it was impossible to tell which body part it was. With tears in his eyes and blood splattered over his flak jacket, he held the remains of his friend in his arms until someone gave him a poncho to wrap them with.
Frantic medics did what they could to relieve horrific injuries, until four helicopters landed in the middle of the highway to take the injured to a military hospital. Each wounded marine had a tag describing his injury. One had gunshot wounds to the face, another to the chest. Another simply lay on his side in the sand with a tag reading: "Urgent _ surgery, buttock."
One young marine was assigned the job of keeping the flies at bay. Some of his comrades, exhausted, covered in blood, dirt and sweat walked around dazed. There were loud cheers as the sound of the heaviest artillery yet to pound Nasiriya shook the ground.
Before last week the overwhelming majority of these young men had never been in combat. Few had even seen a dead body. Now, their faces had changed. Anger and fear were fuelled by rumours that the bodies of American soldiers had been dragged through Nasiriya’s streets. Some marines cried in the arms of friends, others sought comfort in the Bible.
Next morning, the men of Alpha company talked about the fighting over MREs (meals ready to eat). They were jittery now and reacted nervously to any movement around their dugouts. They suspected that civilian cars, including taxis, had helped resupply the enemy inside the city. When cars were spotted speeding along two roads, frantic calls were made over the radio to get permission to "kill the vehicles". Twenty-four hours earlier it would almost certainly have been denied: now it was granted.
Immediately, the level of force levelled at civilian vehicles was overwhelming. Tanks were placed on the road and AAVs lined along one side. Several taxis were destroyed by helicopter gunships as they drove down the road.
A lorry filled with sacks of wheat made the fatal mistake of driving through US lines. The order was given to fire. Several AAVs pounded it with a barrage of machinegun fire, riddling the windscreen with at least 20 holes. The driver was killed instantly. The lorry swerved off the road and into a ditch. Rumour spread that the driver had been armed and had fired at the marines. I walked up to the lorry, but could find no trace of a weapon.
This was the start of day that claimed many civilian casualties. After the lorry a truck came down the road. Again the marines fired. Inside, four men were killed. They had been travelling with some 10 other civilians, mainly women and children who were evacuated, crying, their clothes splattered in blood. Hours later a dog belonging to the dead driver was still by his side.
The marines moved west to take a military barracks and secure their third objective, the third bridge, which carried a road out of the city.
At the barracks, the marines hung a US flag from a statue of Saddam, but Lieutenant-Colonel Rick Grabowski, the battalion commander, ordered it down. He toured barracks. There were stacks of Russian-made ammunition and hundreds of Iraqi army uniforms, some new, others left behind by fleeing Iraqi soldiers.
One room had a map of Nasiriya, showing its defences and two large cardboard arrows indicating the US plan of attack to take the two main bridges. Above the map were several murals praising Saddam. One, which sickened the Americans, showed two large civilian planes crashing into tall buildings.
As night fell again there was great tension, the marines fearing an ambush. Two tanks and three AAVs were placed at the north end of the third bridge, their guns pointing down towards Nasiriya, and given orders to shoot at any vehicle that drove towards American positions.
Though civilians on foot passed by safely, the policy was to shoot anything that moved on wheels. Inevitably, terrified civilians drove at speed to escape: marines took that speed to be a threat and hit out. During the night, our teeth on edge, we listened a dozen times as the AVVs’ machineguns opened fire, cutting through cars and trucks like paper.
Next morning I saw the result of this order _ the dead civilians, the little girl in the orange and gold dress.
Suddenly, some of the young men who had crossed into Iraq with me reminded me now of their fathers’ generation, the trigger-happy grunts of Vietnam. Covered in the mud from the violent storms, they were drained and dangerously aggressive.
In the days afterwards, the marines consolidated their position and put a barrier of trucks across the bridge to stop anyone from driving across, so there were no more civilian deaths.
They also ruminated on what they had done. Some rationalised it.
"I was shooting down a street when suddenly a woman came out and casually began to cross the street with a child no older than 10," said Gunnery Sergeant John Merriman, another Gulf war veteran. "At first I froze on seeing the civilian woman. She then crossed back again with the child and went behind a wall. Within less than a minute a guy with an RPG came out and fired at us from behind the same wall. This happened a second time so I thought, ‘Okay, I get it. Let her come out again’.
She did and this time I took her out with my M-16." Others were less sanguine.
Mike Brooks was one of the commanders who had given the order to shoot at civilian vehicles. It weighed on his mind, even though he felt he had no choice but to do everything to protect his marines from another ambush.
On Friday, making coffee in the dust, he told me he had been writing a diary, partly for his wife Kelly, a nurse at home in Jacksonville, North Carolina, with their sons Colin, 6, and four-year-old twins Brian and Evan.
When he came to jotting down the incident about the two babies getting killed by his men he couldn’t do it. But he said he would tell her when he got home. I offered to let him call his wife on my satellite phone to tell her he was okay. He turned down the offer and had me write and send her an e-mail instead.
He was too emotional. If she heard his voice, he said, she would know that something was wrong.
MARK FRANCHETTI writes for the London Times, where this dispatch originally appeared.