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The Killer Elite Part Three: The Battle for Baghdad

While U.S. forces in the Iraqi capital celebrate the fall of Saddam Hussein, the exhausted Marines of First Recon grind toward their most desperate and bloody battle yet

Marines struggle through a hymn during an Easter Sunday baptism service.
Evan Wright
July 24, 2003 12:00 AM ET

Horsehead is dead. The beloved former First Sergeant in the Marine First Reconnaissance Battalion, a powerfully built 230-pound African-American named Edward Smith, was felled by an enemy mortar or artillery blast while riding atop an armored vehicle outside Baghdad on April 4th. He died in a military hospital the next day. Horsehead, 38, had transferred out of First Recon to an infantry unit before the war started. News of his death hits the Recon battalion hard. Sgt. Rudy Reyes is one of the first to hear of it. He moves along the camp's perimeter just outside Baghdad, spreading the word. "Hey, brother," he says softly, "I just came by to tell you Horsehead died last night."

The Killer Elite Part One

Now, a couple of days later, following a brief sundown memorial around an M-4 rifle planted upright in the dirt in honor of their fallen comrade – Marines in Bravo Company's Second Platoon gather under their camouflage nets trading Horsehead stories. Reyes repeats a phrase Horsehead always used back home at Camp Pendleton in San Diego. Before loaning anyone his truck, which had an extensive sound-equalizer system, he'd say, "You can drive my truck. But don't fuck with my volumes." For some reason, repeating the phrase makes Reyes laugh almost to the verge of tears.

It's April 8th. Army and Marine units began their final assault on Baghdad several hours ago. First Recon, however, will not be heading into the Iraqi capital just yet. It's feared that Iraqi Republican Guard units may be massing for a counterattack in a town called Ba'qubah, fifty kilometers north of Baghdad. First Recon receives orders to head north and attack these forces. Sgt. Brad Colbert, whose team I am riding with, and the rest of the Marines stop reminiscing about Horsehead and load their Humvees.

About two hundred Recon Marines are slated for this mission. If the worst-case fears of their commanders are true, they will be confronting several thousand Iraqis in tanks. In the best-case scenario, they will merely be assaulting through about thirty kilometers of known ambush points along the route to Ba'qubah. "Once again, we will be at the absolute tippity-tip of the spear, going into the unknown," says Lt. Nathaniel Fick, briefing his men just before the mission. Most of the Marines are in high spirits. "It beats sitting around doing nothing while everybody else gets to have fun attacking Baghdad," says Cpl. Joshua Person before taking his position in the driver's seat of Colbert's Humvee. Colbert, however, just stares out his window at the fading light and mumbles something I can't quite make out. I ask him to repeat it, and he waves it off. "It was nothing," he says. "I was just thinking about Horsehead."

The Killer Elite Part Two: From Hell to Baghdad

Taking the lead of First Recon's fifty-vehicle column, Colbert's Humvee drives out past the camp's concertina wire and into the eastern outskirts of Baghdad. We pass newly liberated Iraqis in the throes of celebration. Though the city center will not fall for another twenty-four hours, freedom fills the air, along with the stench of uncollected garbage and overflowing sewers. Trash piles and pools of fetid water line the edges of the road. Iraqis stream through the smoky haze hauling random looted goods – ceiling fans, pieces of machinery, fluorescent lights, mismatched filing-cabinet drawers.

The bedlam continues until First Recon moves north of the city and links up with a light-armored reconnaissance company that is joining in the assault on Ba'qubah. The call sign of this adjoining company, which consists of about a hundred Marines mounted in twenty-four light-armored vehicles, is War Pig. LAVs are noisy, black-armored eight-wheel vehicles shaped like upside-down bathtubs with rapid-fire cannons mounted on top. Iraqis call them "the Great Destroyers."

Despite the fact that Colbert's team has been driving into ambushes on an almost daily basis for more than two weeks, this is the first time these Marines have started a mission with an armored escort. "Damn! That's fucking awesome," Person says. "We've got the Great Destroyers with us."

"No, the escort is not awesome," Colbert says. "This just tells us how bad they're expecting this to be." As we pull out, Colbert's mood shifts from darkly brooding to grimly cheerful. "Once more into the great good night," he says in a mock stage voice, then quotes a line from Julius Caesar. "Cry'havoc,' and let slip the dogs of war."

Hunched over the wheel, head weighted down with a night-vision device, Person says, "Man, when I get home, I'm gonna eat the fuck out of my girlfriend's pussy."

"Enemy contact," Colbert says, passing on word from his headset radio.

"LAVs report enemy contact ahead."

War Pig is spread out on the highway, with its closest vehicle about a hundred meters directly in front of Colbert's and its farthest about three kilometers ahead. Automatic cannons send out tracer rounds that look like orange ropes. They stream out in all directions, orange lines bouncing and quivering over the landscape. Other, thinner orange lines, representing enemy machine guns, stream in toward the LAVs.

Iraqi Republican Guard troops have dug into trenches along both sides of the road. The enemy fighters are armed with every conceivable type of portable weapon – from machine guns to mortars to rocket-propelled grenades. The convoy stops as War Pig and the Iraqis shoot it out ahead. Enemy mortars explode nearby, falling from the sky in a random pattern. The Recon company behind Colbert's platoon opens up with everything it has. These Marines belong to a reservist unit, just arrived in Baghdad and only linked up with First Recon a few days earlier. They're older – a lot of them are beat cops or Drug Enforcement Administration agents in civilian life. This is their first significant enemy contact, and their wild firing – some of it in the direction of Colbert's Humvee – seems panicked.

"I have no targets! I have no targets!" Colbert repeats over the gunfire, but Cpl. Walt Hasser, the gunner in the turret who operates the Mark-19 grenade launcher, begins lobbing rounds toward a nearby village.

"Cease fire!" Colbert shouts. "Easy there, buddy. You're shooting a village. We've got women and children there."

The reservists behind us have already poured at least a hundred grenades onto the small clusters of houses by the side of the road. In the window of one dwelling, a lantern glows. Through his night-vision scope, Colbert can just make out a group of what appears to be women and children taking cover behind a wall.

"We're not shooting the village, OK?" he says. In times like this, Colbert often assumes the tone of a schoolteacher calling a timeout during a frenzied playground scuffle. Mortars are exploding so close you feel the overpressure punching down on the Humvee. But Colbert will not allow his team to give in to the frenzy and shoot unless it finds clear targets or enemy muzzle flashes.

The voice of Captain America comes over the battalion radio, quavering and cracking as he excitedly calls in reports of more incoming fire. This Recon officer – who earned his derisive nickname because of what many of his men view as his overzealous antics – sounds over the radio like his voice is breaking.

"Oh, my God!" Person says. "Is he crying?"

"No, he's not," Colbert says, cutting off what will likely be a bitter tirade about Captain America. In recent days, Person has pretty much forgotten his old hatreds for pop stars such as Justin Timberlake – a former favorite subject of long, tedious rants about what's wrong with the U.S. – and now he complains almost exclusively about Captain America. Lack of respect for this officer is so acute among enlisted ranks that some of his own men openly refer to him as "dumbass" – sometimes directly to his face. "He's just nervous," Colbert says, not quite defending the officer. "Everyone's nervous. Everyone's just trying to do their job."

For the next twenty sleepless hours, the Marines in First Recon and War Pig methodically advance up the highway, traveling barely fifteen kilometers, clearing villages on foot, blowing up enemy trucks and weapons caches, and wiping out pockets of Iraqi soldiers as they hide in trenches or take cover in civilian homes.

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