Originally created 03/30/03

Troops recover Iraqis' corpses

AL KIFL, IRAQ - All is quiet now except for the rumble of engines in U.S. military vehicles.

The Euphrates River silently flows underneath the bridge where those vehicles idle.

Stopping by charred cars, trucks or vans, one by one, 3rd Infantry Division soldiers pull dead Iraqis from inside. They silently lay the bloodied bodies in bags, zip them shut and then ease the body bags onto the back of a cargo truck.

The soldiers have very little to say.

Within a few hours Friday, the soldiers had collected the remains of 23 Iraqi fighters. Four others were charred beyond recognition and left behind.

Another four were left inside their Mercedes-Benz because soldiers feared a booby trap, said Sgt. Raymond Nixon, a mortuary specialist in the 3rd Forward Support Battalion.

Sgt. Nixon saw a wire wrapped around one man's ankle and tied to an AK-47 rifle. The Iraqi soldiers were killed during a battle with the 3rd Infantry Division's 1st Brigade. The battle was fought for control of the bridge, which will be part of the division's path toward Baghdad.

Most of the dead were not from the town of Al Kifl, said Col. Will Grimsley, the 1st Brigade commander. They were sent south by Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to fight the Americans.

During the battle, the brigade's tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles would block intersections and roadways. The Iraqis attacked by loading three to five men in cars, vans - even a dump truck - and driving full steam ahead toward the tanks and Bradleys, Col. Grimsley said. The Iraqis fired their weapons as they drove.

"We'd shoot a machine gun at them and they wouldn't stop," Col. Grimsley said. "We finally just had to shoot them before they ran into something."

A few Iraqis launched sniper attacks from canoes in the river, Col. Grimsley said.

AFTER 3 1/2 DAYS of fighting, the 1st Brigade took control of the bridge and prepared to move out.

"We hope this is over," Col. Grimsley said. "We've had enough of this right here."

Infantry and armor soldiers rested under the shade of palm trees and leaned against the dusty stucco walls of buildings in town. Few local people walked the streets. When they did, soldiers searched them for weapons. On the bridge, four soldiers wrestled bodies from a black-and-silver Kia Pregio minivan.

The bodies were lodged under seats and hanging out the side doors. The rear window was blown out, and shattered glass covered the road. One soldier dropped to his knees, struggling to hold off sickness.

Sgt. Nixon will never forget covering the bodies of a mother, father and child. The family might have been hit by a delivery truck commandeered by Iraqi fighters for the battle, Sgt. Nixon said.

"That was a hard one," he said.

The U.S. military cleans up the bodies to prevent diseases from being spread after they decompose, Sgt. Nixon said.

The body bags were laid in rows of five on a shaded roadside so that the deceased's heads faced Mecca, the holy city for Muslims. Later, the Red Cross will recover the bodies and try to identify the dead, he said.

When soldiers returned to their base camp Friday evening, Sgt. 1st Class Randy Caswell gathered them in a circle.

"What y'all have seen today will live in your minds for a while," he said. "You actually gave these guys a service. Instead of letting them lay in the street, you picked them up and gave them some dignity."


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