the invasion of iraq
photo of marcone

Marcone is battalion commander of the 69th Armor of the 3rd Infantry Division's 1st Brigade. His unit has been described as the "tip of the tip of the spear" in the advance toward Saddam International Airport on April 3-4. Marcone's brigade also successfully fought off a counterattack on a key bridge the night of April 2. In the following excerpts from his interview he details these operations and talks about how his forces expected -- and were prepared for -- Iraqi chemical weapons as they advanced through the Karbala Gap.

interview: lt. col. ernest 'rock' marcone

The Karbala Gap mission

The Karbala Gap spans an area of land about a mile wide, between a lake and the city of Karbala. The Army began crossing the Gap on April 2 as it approached Baghdad from the southwest. They found scant traces of an Iraqi defense, and suspected that the area had been cleared in advance of a chemical attack.

So in practice, [your battalion is engaged in] reconnaissance by course, movement to contact?

We didn't take any prisoners east of that bridge. east of that bridge, nobody surrendered.  We had finally found the Iraqi Republican Guard.

Exactly, and that's what my mission was as the advance guard. I was conducting movement contact to find the enemy, fix them and kill them, and allow the units behind me to move unimpeded as quickly as possible to the critical ground, which was east of the Euphrates River, once I got the bridge at Objective Peach. Once I was east of the river, it was over.

Now as you're sitting at the poise to get through the Karbala Gap, at that point, this is where everyone is expecting the mother of all battles. Perhaps at this point we can address the question of weapons of mass destruction and what you had been told about them -- your expectations of them, and how that played in your psyche and the psyche of your men?

We were definitely worried about it. If there were one place where he could have used chemical weapons very successfully, it was at the Karbala Gap, because from the body of water from the west to the edge of the urban sprawl of Karbala itself in the east, it was only 1,900 meters, which is not a very large gap. There were two large dams -- not really bridges. They were earthen dams that we had seized and secured in order to pass the rest of the 1st Brigade and the rest of the division. So there was a great opportunity there to set the conditions early.

He could have shot it early, or try to get us with chemical weapons whilst we were moving. However, that would have taken a large amount of artillery -- a large amount of ammunitions to really seal that gap off. If we were moving as quickly as I anticipated us moving, that would be very difficult. …

We had all kinds of measures ready. We had … special guidelines, we had protocols in place for what we would call "counterbattery fire" for our rocket artillery, if we were to shoot ammunition. The best way to deliver [a counterattack] would usually be by helicopter spray and by artillery. So we had our artillery ready and poised and our radars ready. If anything would've been shot in that gap, there would be mortar fire going back immediately, and we would have destroyed a lot of his capability to keep shooting and keep receiving that type of ammunition. Plus, speed is also a form of defense. …

If you'd been in [the enemy's] shoes, what would you have done?

I would have defended the river line, because Karbala Gap itself -- if you seize the gap, you still don't win. You've got to get across the river. You hold the river line, you never get to Baghdad, you never cross the river, you can't win. You seize Karbala Gap, you seize a very good troop point for us, for our lines of communication. Key terrain? Yes. Decisive terrain? No. The river line was, and to hold it. …

Bridge crossing at Objective Peach

Objective Peach was the name given to a strategic bridge that crossed the Euphrates River. Although the bridge was rigged with explosives and Iraqi forces managed to damage half of it, Lt. Col. Marcone led a river assault under synthetic smoke cover. After taking the bridge, his unit endured a counterattack by the Iraqi army.

[Why did you choose the bridge at Objective Peach for crossing?] Why didn't you just take the main road, and just cross that great big bridge at [Musaib]?

We didn't cross the bridge at [Musaib], because we thought that's what [the enemy] expected us to do. When we looked at the bridges -- the bridge at Objective Peach, not only is it not far from Karbala, but it was close to our ultimate objective, which was Objective Lions, the Saddam International Airport. By crossing there, we were very close in striking distance, 20, 25 kilometers or so to the airport. …

Plus, it was much closer to Objective Saints, which was in the south, which was the secondary brigade's objective. … It just proved to be not only the most unlikely bridge, if you were looking at it from the enemy's point of view, but for us, it facilitated our follow-on missions, which was to start to encircle Baghdad from the east and the south.

Talk me through the actual advance on the bridge, at [Peach]. There's an initial skirmish before the bridge, isn't there?

Yes. Once we get across the Karbala Gap -- We get across in good order. We get the battalion to an intermediate assault position, to where we sat. We refuel, rearm, and then we had to get ourselves organized to do the assault bridge crossing

The importance of it is that we had to get the engineers up and ready, get all their demo ready, so they could do all their pre-combat inspections and get the RB-15 boats ready. We were going to do a boat assault because we fully anticipated this bridge to be mined, set with demolitions, and rigged to explode. We wanted to capture the bridge intact to facilitate the divisions' movement. That's what we did, once we got through. …

[What happened during the] seizure of the bridge?

From the point of where our Alpha Company was -- destroying these pockets of resistance -- we had a fight to the bridge through these Fedayeen forces. It slowed our movement down, which isn't what I think they were trying to do. But for the most part, they didn't have armor. We hadn't seen any armor yet. We fought mostly infantry and infantry-type weapons, and the non-standard pickup trucks. They were using anything they could to move around, to try and slow our movement, to get on our flanks, and try to inflict casualties as we were moving to the bridge.

We had a very deliberate plan for the seizure of the bridge. We had trigger lines established, where we launched both close air support and artillery. A lot of that was to not only to suppress [the enemy], but also to defeat some of his mechanisms that he used to mine the bridge with. We knew that he was going to use a certain type of dead cording cable, and [we knew] what kind of electronic devices [he would use] and the distances that they would be from the bridge.

So we had some pretty good aerial photographs of the bridge and the surrounding buildings. We targeted a lot of those, and I think that's why we were successful on the west side of the bridge. We were able to destroy those mechanisms.

On the southeastern part of the bridge, he was able to detonate one of his charges and damage the bridge. Once we launched the artillery, and the close air support, I also had in the tank aviation company that was under my control for this fight. They were also providing long-range fires and reconnaissance for us, as we were moving towards the bridge.

We did an assault bridge crossing with RB-15 boats initially, and we used mechanical smoke. We used artillery-delivered smoke to obscure [the enemy's] ability to see what we were doing. We did too good a job, because we couldn't see what we were doing there, either. But we brought what we call the forms -- the seven forms of contact -- against him. Once you bring all those pressure points against an enemy, it's very hard [for them]. He couldn't react, he was paralyzed, and we were able to dictate the flow of the battle. …

What happened? [The enemy forces] -- were they all killed? Did some surrender?

We didn't take any prisoners east of that bridge. We had some prisoners on the west side from the Fedayeen fight. But east of that bridge, nobody surrendered, and they were all uniformed; we had finally found the Iraqi Republican Guard. We had finally found the Iraqi army. …

We were still receiving some good artillery and mortar fire until about 1900, 2000 [hours] that night. We expand the bridgehead out, and then we prepare our defenses.

We got told that the Second Brigade had run into some tough terrain, and that they were going to have to readjust their route. They weren't going to get there until the morning, so we were going to have to defend the bridge all night. Another battalion in the 1st Brigade, 37th Infantry, came across the bridge. They took the southern part of the bridgehead line, which allowed us to concentrate on the two main avenues of approach, which were directly east, which is Charlie 6, and then directly north. We were able to array our forces along the good ground, and we had a chance to look at the ground and do some reconnaissance, and get set.

The best piece of intelligence I got the entire war was that night. We were told that an Iraqi commander brigade was coming from the airport area to try and retake the bridge. And that did happen. … A commander brigade especially is, to me, more of a threat than armor, because our capabilities were so good. The best armor to have in your approach was at the Charlie 6 fight. I had a tank company set there with another infantry company to reinforce him, if necessary.

But I was concerned to the north, because it was good infantry terrain, where the enemy could have infiltrated very easily into our positions. We determined that that was probably where that commander brigade would come. So we put infantry reinforced with armor -- two companies -- on that avenue. That's the way it happened, it turned out. …

We got the first spot report, "Tank moving from east to west," from Captain Gerald Robbins, my Charlie 369 commander, and then started to get the spot reports from Dave Benton, and Chuck O'Brien, who commanded Alpha 369, Bravo 37 Infantry. We started to get the spot reports of infantry moving in the north.

So now it looked like we had some sort of coordinated attack to try and retake the bridge. As the spot reports started to come in, and as we started to look at what we were facing at the time, we weren't sure what they were, because we were engaging at such long ranges, that we didn't know if they were T-72 [tanks] or whether they were BMP [armored command vehicles].

It was a very dark night -- not much illumination at about [0300 hours]. The moon had already gone down. We fought from [0300] until about [0530, 0600 hours], almost steadily. What we ended up fighting were two brigades -- the 10th Brigade of the Medina attacked from east to west, and then the commander brigade attacked from north to south. They tried very hard to coordinate this attack, and they just could not put it all together. They ended up piecemealing themselves. The 10th Brigade hits us hard first; we repulsed their attack. They came at us again; we repulsed the attack again.

Then the commander brigade, the infantry, started to show up in the north. They had the interior lines that were able to move assets around, and move artillery around and CAS (Close Air Support) to the critical points, and [we were] able to match fires against their concentrated attack avenues of approach. …

They did the best they could, and they came at us with everything they had -- 15 tanks, 30 to 40 armored personnel carriers reinforced with artillery mortars. The problem was that we could see them in long ranges, and we were able to engage them and destroy them very effectively. The engagement didn't last very long.

We allowed them to come in to the kill zone, in the engagement area. Once they got in, they couldn't get out, because behind them, artillery is falling, and behind the artillery, we had the close air support coming in. The lead units were being engaged by main gun, machine gun and 25 mm [gun]. So they were under fire -- suppressed immediately.

The units behind them all piled up on the road, and then our artillery and cast came in, basically raking the column. It started at [0300]. The main attack about [0400], and by [0530], they were completely destroyed. The 10th Brigade had ceased to exist.

The amazing part was is that we didn't realize how big the force we were fighting, and it was one tank company that fought that brigade. He never called for reinforcements. I had a company on reserve that was defending the bridge itself, and was also ready to move to reinforce north to east. Captain Robbins and his men had the situation well in hand against the clearly superior force -- he was one company.

How many tanks in that company?

He had 10 tanks and four Bradleys. I remember going there that morning and looking down that road and -- just unbelievable -- couldn't imagine what was going through the Iraqi minds that night as they were trying to assault that position, because for about a mile and a half, you couldn't walk down that road without stepping on a body part and watching tanks and PCs burn.

It was a huge tank battle, and we really didn't even know it. I mean, we were just doing our job. We saw the enemy, we kept firing, we kept shooting. And at night, with [no moon], it's very hard to see what's going on other than watching the enemy vehicles burn [and] explode. …

The Taking of Saddam International Airport

Saddam International was considered a primary steppingstone to an assault on Baghdad. Marcone led the ground charge to the airport on April 3 and April 4. Although he met Republican Guard resistance on the way, he was surprised to find almost no fight once inside the airport grounds. Later interrogation of captured Iraqis revealed that they were expecting an air assault.

[What was your next task?]

Our job was to go get the airport, to seize that objective and threaten Baghdad from the west, and to take that regime icon away. …As the [strategy] meeting went on, I kept getting the feeling that they're going to want to go here pretty quickly, so we had to really hurry our preparations. At noon, we were told to go ahead and start our line of departure, which it means start the attack at 1430 hours on the same day.

We started. We had to call all the company commanders together. We put our plan together, and we came up with a very indirect approach. The Iraqis knew we were worn out. They knew that the airport was going to be attacked. We knew that the enemy there would be Special Republican Guard (SRG). We didn't know where they were, how they were defending there. We just knew they were there, up to two brigades….

We went a little bit out of our way and actually attacked the southern part of the airport from west to east. I think that helped out a lot, because we caught them, and we actually started the attack. We only hit one ambush position -- a very good one. The SRG that we fought at that ambush position was probably the most tenacious guys that we fought in all the whole night and the next day. We didn't finish destroying that unit, which we anticipated to be at least a company, maybe two companies, until the next day….

Coming in west to east, the reason I think it was successful was because we caught them moving from east to west in their trucks. So they clearly anticipated that attack to come up the traditional route, which was Highway 1 as it opened up into the airport. They didn't expect us to come in to the two routes that were from the west side of the airport.

So they were in trucks moving enormous amount of ammunition and soldiers from east to west. Of course, when they're moving in trucks like that, our ability to see them and put lethal accurate fire at them is just beyond their realm of comprehension. We would destroy those trucks, and those trucks would just burn all night long, because it was so loaded with ammo and soldiers. …This was probably the most difficult mission that we had, because it came at the tail end of fighting two very tough battles. Here it is now, it's the night of the April 3, and we've been fighting since April 2.

Is this your third battle in Iraq in 36 hours?

It's our third battle in about 36 hours, and it's at night -- no moon. We have no idea about the enemy disposition or where they're at. We know they're on the airport, and that's it. Or their ambush positions on the way-- … No idea where the enemy is. …

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It's about 2100, 2200 [hours] at night, and my scalpel team gets ambushed. I take some wounded. I had a [medical evacuation], and a couple of soldiers were seriously wounded. The ambushes caused us to be very cautious with our movement with our fuelers and our supplies and our ammunition. We had a vehicle that tried to avoid an ambush that went into a canal, and I lost a soldier, Sgt. Wilbert Davis, and Mr. Michael Kelly, who was the reporter … who unfortunately went into the canal.

Again, very difficult; now you've got the smoke from the battlefield. You've got no illumination. Without illumination, although our night sights are very, very good, it goes off with the starlight and moonlight, and if the airport was completely black, [they don't work].

Baghdad was completely black. It was a very, very eerie night. We attacked at two avenues. We were balanced on both avenues, an infantry company and a tank company on each one. We finally broke down the walls to get into the airport… We've kind of kicked the door in. We've blown a big hole now in the airport. We've gone onto the airport proper. …

We're in position. We just expected this huge battle with these SRG, and it just didn't happen. We were extremely puzzled and we were extremely tired. By about [0330 hours], in the rear, there was also some fierce fighting going on. My real command post and I kept a Bradley platoon with infantry protecting my fuelers. My logistics packages came under attack, and they were fighting all night long. So a lot of the fight, it was there also, [but] ... outside the airport.

But on the airport itself, just that tank platoon and some sporadic squads. Very surreal, very unnerving, because it's not what we expected at all.

Sun started coming at about [0430 hours]. I was asleep on the top of my tank. I started to hear the familiar sound of the 25 mm [gun] start shooting -- has a very distinct continuation of thudding sounds as it shoots. I heard one, and I heard two, and I heard three, and then I heard a tank shoot. I said "OK," so I got up and I look -- and it was something that you would just not believe.

The Iraqis' defense -- They had anticipated an airborne, an air assault, so their defense was ringed within aircraft, which we destroyed on our way in -- all these positions which were very easy to destroy. But the SRG brigades had occupied each one of the runways, west and east, and they had dug themselves into the marsh, the swamp, which was between the access roads and the runway itself. They had dug an intricate trench system under the ground. [They had] headquarters, they had laid wire, communications wire. They had mortars. They had everything.

Their plan was -- and we got this [later], through interrogation -- was that as our airborne troops were falling from the sky, or as helicopters were coming in an air assault, they would be able to come out of their positions and be able to engage them from four or five positions, as we were exposed. They never in their wildest dreams expected an armored task force or an armored brigade to roll up on top of the airport. It was literally Iraqis getting out of their beds, getting up to the sunshine, and scratching their heads and looking around and saying, "Oh, my God." And us doing the same thing, saying, "What in the hell is going on?"

They were so close that tanks were in positions, and we couldn't see in the marsh, in the high grass. Iraqis were literally coming out of their positions as tank commanders were sitting in their hatches, looking down. They were throwing grenades from the hatch into Iraqi bunkers, because they couldn't start the tank quick enough in order to traverse or get any of their weapons systems to bear. They were using pistols and hand grenades from the hatches into the Iraqi bunkers. For about 90 minutes to two hours, we had this hellacious fight between the SRG, trying to get themselves together from waking up in the morning and realizing that we were there, and us being right on top of them. It was very one-sided, yet very ferocious.

How could they have possibly slept through your entry into the airport? … Would they have not noticed all that noise?

… The SRG did have quite a bit of armor in that area, both to the north and south. I think they just live with the constant bombing, [with] what was going on in Baghdad, which was only 10 kilometers away to the east. That's the only explanation I can give. …

It was vicious there for that hour and a half, because they really tried to get themselves together. I had tanks hit was RPGs. We had grenades blown up all around us. They were really trying to get their act together, because they were so totally surprised.

Once they realized that this was really futile, they started to surrender and we destroyed both command posts, the commanders of each brigade on each side of the airfield. Both their command posts were destroyed, and they were killed.

If you kill their leadership, it became very hard for them to coordinate their attacks and for them to really execute. Once those command posts were destroyed, their will to fight dwindled, and they started to surrender.


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posted february 26, 2004

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