When Marcone’s troops were only a few miles from the bridge, Grimsley ordered the execution of a sustained multibattery artillery barrage, followed by a series of pinpoint joint direct attack munition (JDAM) strikes on each of the buildings in the bridge’s immediate vicinity, designed to wipe out any local defenders. If there was an Iraqi sitting on the other side ready to push a plunger and blow the bridge as American tanks began crossing, Grimsley wanted him dead. Just as the soldiers of the 3-69 Armored Battalion closed on the bridge, the far side erupted into balls of dust and flame. Despite the intensity of this preemptive bombardment, Marcone could not be sure that the bridge would not blow up as soon as he started crossing. He therefore decided to take the bridge with a river assault.
He ordered Captain Todd Kelly’s C/2-7 infantry company to move to the edge of the Euphrates and provide covering fire for the engineers who would assault the bridge. At the same time, Captain Dan Hibner had a company of engineers three hundred yards behind Kelly’s line, preparing for the most audacious action of the war: a daylight river assault in small rubber boats.
Hibner originally planned a four-boat assault, but it would be some time before his men could muscle all the boats forward. With Iraqi artillery already beginning to fall and fearing the Iraqis might blow the bridge at any moment, Hibner ordered the first boat to cross the river. As one sergeant remembered, “We started paddling as fast as we could, but the infantry guys with us did not know how to do it. We were out in the open, being shot at in a paddle boat that had a big leak, and had to stop to show the infantry how to paddle. We were also slowly drifting directly towards the building we were receiving fire from. Of course everyone was very pissed off.”
Marcone had every weapon he could bring to bear plastering the buildings on the far side of the river to give the men in the boats some protection. After the war, he said, “Putting those guys in boats was the hardest thing I ever did. It really bothered me because I expected we might lose a lot of them. I just didn’t want to have any of my soldiers’ bodies in the Euphrates.” At the time, he did not know that every soldier at the river’s edge volunteered to go over in the first boat and the squad selected considered itself lucky.
By the time the first boat was halfway across, Hibner had his second boat in the water. After what seemed to Hibner an interminably long time, both boats made it across and began expanding their toehold at the base of the bridge. Job one, cutting the wires, fell to the engineers, while the infantry began clearing Iraqis out of nearby buildings. By the time Hibner crossed in the third boat, his men were already hard at work.
Hibner started to direct the wire-cutting activities and ordered the exposed wires shunted off so that stray radio waves could not set off the explosives. He also let the infantry continue clearing the nearby buildings, until they stumbled on a manned and intact bunker complex, at which point he ordered them to pull back and set up defensive positions. Hibner knew he did not have enough men to take on bunkers and wanted his men ready to repel a counterattack. Once the position was secure, and he was sure every wire leading to the bridge had been cut, Hibner called Marcone, who immediately sent his tanks across. Hibner, later awarded the Silver Star for leading this action, said, “It was a good feeling to hear the rumbling of the tanks on the bridge. It was much to our joy, as it meant the demise of the Iraqis who were still shooting at us.”
Captain Jared Robbins led his C/3–69 armored company across the bridge and secured the far side. As soon as that was done, Captain Dave Benton, commanding the B/3–7 infantry, led his company through Robbins’s troops and began making his way through the smoke and debris toward the canal bridge on the far side of the objective area. His mission was to occupy a position where he could cover the bridge with fire and not allow the Iraqis to cross it. Navigating proved tricky, and it took Benton some time to find a narrow dirt road on which his Bradley Fighting Vehicles could move. Finding the road too restricted for tanks, Benton left his tank platoon in an over-watch position on a hill and went forward with his Bradleys.
Two hundred yards past the bridge, Benton’s Bradley ran into a dug-in Iraqi BMP (a Soviet-made armored personnel carrier) that he had failed to see in the smoke. Immediately backing up fifty meters, Benton fired high-explosive 25 mm rounds into it until the turret blew off. His vehicle was then hit by a missile from a second BMP, which he also quickly dispatched with 25 mm fire. By this time, Benton was receiving heavy fire from entrenched Iraqis, and his strung-out unit could not find enough maneuver room to add their additional firepower to the growing fight. With no other choice, Benton ordered his infantry out of the Bradleys and told them to start clearing the enemy entrenchments. As the infantry assault began, Benton continued to attack down the road with his Bradley. He destroyed four more BMPs before his 25 mm gun malfunctioned. Still, Benton continued to move forward until he found a spot where he could pull over and let the other Bradleys swing past him and move toward the canal bridge. They destroyed two more BMPs as they advanced.
Within moments, Benton’s Bradleys dominated the objective, and he sensed the fight had gone out of the remaining Iraqis. Afterward, Benton said he could not understand their fighting methods. “They really didn’t establish good engagement areas, and as far as I could see, the infantry stayed in their holes. As my infantry would go through, they would throw grenades in and kill five or ten of them and then spray the hole to make sure there were no survivors to surprise them as they moved to the next hole.… They should have surrendered.” Benton’s company had run into the reconnaissance company from the Medina’s 10th Brigade. It was an indication that the rest of the brigade could not be far behind.
By 5:00 P.M., Marcone had his entire 3–69 Armored Battalion across the bridge and in defensive positions. They met intermittent resistance, but before dark Marcone had five companies of mixed armor and infantry tied into a single defensive front, waiting for an expected major Iraqi counterattack. However, for the next several hours the Iraqis made only sporadic platoon- and company-sized attacks on the bridgehead. Marcone assumed they were incapable of mounting any major threat. He was wrong. The Iraqi attacks were merely the probes designed to find weak points in his line. Even as the Americans repelled every assault, the Iraqi 10th Armored Brigade was forming up for the most powerful Iraqi counterattack of the war.
While Marcone’s men fought their way to and across Objective Peach, Hamdani returned to Baghdad to meet with Saddam’s son Qusay, along with the minister of defense and other senior military commanders. It was to be one of the more bizarre meetings in the history of a regime that had a penchant for holding such meetings. As Hamdani relates:
The Minister of Defense had a message from Saddam. The message was an order for immediate execution. He said that Saddam would not be able to meet during the next two days, but that he [Qusay] had just met with Saddam and the plan was explained to him. The minister went on to explain that what had happened over the last two weeks was a “strategic” trick by the Americans. He told us American forces were going to come from the direction of Jordan, through Al Ramadi, and into northern Baghdad. Emergency procedures were to go into effect at 0500 the next morning. The Al Nida was supposed to shift to the northwest of Baghdad under the Republican Guard I Corps. Minefields were to be immediately established to the west and northwest of Baghdad. The talk of establishing minefields made me think that they thought we were fighting Iran again or something.
At this point, Hamdani strenuously objected, telling them that they were wrong and that he was facing the main American attack and the attack out of Jordan was the trick. The minister of defense replied that he was only the messenger and that discussions were of no further use since Saddam had spoken. Qusay at least allowed Hamdani to explain his view of the situation:
I said that a minor attack was moving up the Tigris along the line from An Nasiriyah to Al Kut [the U.S. Marines 1st Regimental Combat Team]. This attack was actually somewhat of a surprise to me given the tight roads and poor armor terrain in the area. Another minor attack was pushing up the middle ground from As Samawah to Ad Diwaniyah. However, the main attack was on the west side of the Euphrates River through Karbala and into the southwest side of Baghdad. The U.S. 4th Infantry Division would soon join in the main thrust. I said that the Americans would own Karbala by that night, and they would move quickly to take the bridge [Objective Peach].
After Hamdani finished his presentation, Qusay turned back to the minister of defense and Republican Guard chief of staff to ask for their opinions. The former could suggest only that whether Hamdani was right or wrong, the plans should still be carried out as President Hussein had ordered. According to Hamdani:
He said that we should execute the plan as Saddam directed. The Republican Guard chief of staff at first did not answer either way. He repeated over and over, “We must fight.” The regular army chief of staff said that he did not agree with my theory and that Saddam was right. He said, “We must all be 100 percent with Saddam.” The Republican Guard chief of staff then said that I had never executed the plan and that I moved forces without permission. He said that I was to blame for all these casualties.
Qusay remained unsure of what to do but finally ordered that the Al Nida Republican Guard Division and the 16th Regular Army Division move to support the Republican Guard I Corps, which was tasked to defend Iraq from the supposed American thrust coming from northern Jordan. According to Hamdani, “He also directed a withdrawal from Karbala and that all units move to the east side of the Euphrates.”
Hamdani, realizing the argument was lost, tried to salvage something and asked for permission to destroy the strategic al-Qa’id Bridge on the Euphrates (Objective Peach). He received Qusay’s permission and then went to talk privately to the chief of staff. Hamdani was speaking to him for only a moment when he received a call informing him that the al-Qa’id Bridge had fallen. As he recalls, the officer reporting indicated that columns of enemy armor were moving from Jaraf al-Sakhr toward the bridge. “I gave the report to those present, but they did not believe it.” After the war, he wrote about the moment:
They all wanted me to change my comment. They now saw me as their “adversary.” I could not stay for one more second. To the president’s son I said, “Sir, the disastrous fate of Baghdad will happen within the next forty-eight hours. I hope to be wrong in the opinion that we have chosen to follow the wrong decision. Please allow me to return to my headquarters.” He dropped his head down for a moment, and then he raised it so he was looking at me with a sad expression, or it was a strange expression I couldn’t read, and he said, “As you wish. Go ahead.” I said my good-byes to him and left sadly. I looked at my watch, which told me it was 1540, and I did not know that I had just seen Qusay for the last time.
Hamdani later commented on the dismal scene, saying, “It was the kind of argument that I imagine took place in Hitler’s bunker in Berlin. Were all these men on drugs?” In a mood of utter disbelief, he left the meeting to go back to the real fight, while the generals, Saddam, and his sons dealt with their “imaginary universe.”
Hamdani returned to the front to discover that the bridge was still standing and that the Americans were across the Euphrates in strength. He ordered limited counterattacks with available troops and newly arriving special forces regiments. At the same time, he sent for the Medina Division’s 10th Armored Brigade and other forces from the recently arrived Nebuchadnezzar Division, intending to build a new defensive line north of the American bridgehead. Before he could put those orders into effect, the Republican Guard chief of staff arrived and refused to entertain any thoughts of building a new defensive line. He emphatically demanded Hamdani order a major counterattack to retake the bridge, and Hamdani had no choice but to oblige.
By 3:00 A.M., Hamdani had assembled a substantial force around the 10th Armored Brigade, and he ordered the advance on the bridge.
The attack moved forward slowly because we did not have nightvision.… The Medina Division’s commander and I followed the 10th Armored Brigade with our communications groups.… At 0200 American jets attacked our force as we moved down the road. We were hit by many missiles. Most of the Medina Division’s staff were killed. My corps communications staff was also killed. When we reached the area near the bridge where the special forces battalion had set up a headquarters, we immediately came under heavy fire. Based on the volume of fire, I estimated at least sixty armored vehicles.
At this point, Hamdani knew all was lost. But because he was being pushed by his superiors in Baghdad, he ordered one final assault. He personally briefed the commander of the armored battalion that would make the final push.
The tank battalion commander was astounded when I told him his mission and how dangerous it was. He saluted me and said, “I am a martyr and I promise I will not return without accomplishing my mission.” Within a half hour, he fell as a martyr.
By daybreak, Hamdani had managed to get several hundred special forces soldiers within a few hundred yards of the bridge. They had some trucks filled with explosives that were to join them in a final rush and then be exploded on the bridge. Just as Hamdani was about to give the order for a final suicidal charge, disaster struck.
At that moment, a huge number of American aircraft and combat helicopters launched a series of intense attacks. When they were done, I did not have a single tank or other transport left to me. They were so accurate. I could not believe how they hit targets. All around me were columns of smoke from burning vehicles. At this point, I lost hope and ordered a withdrawal.
For Marcone’s men, the Iraqi counterattack was a shock. After hours of fighting off small, hastily gathered bands, they assumed that this was the best the Iraqis could do. However, Marcone had not left much to chance. After crossing the bridge, he had coordinated a linear artillery target area and a close air support kill-box along what he considered the most likely avenue of approach for an Iraqi counterattack. He guessed right. When the counterattack came, the 10th Brigade drove right through both the preplanned artillery coordinates and the kill-box. They met a storm of steel.
Bravely, the battered survivors continued to come on, directly into Marcone’s tankers. First Lieutenant Jim Temple’s platoon story will have to suffice to tell what twenty-two other platoons also faced that night:
At three o’clock in the morning, we noticed another big push. This time, they were definitely using modern tactics. They were using three- to five-second rushes and low crawls. We thought this must be something a little bigger than the militia or Fedayeen coming at us. More trucks started coming at us. We had several trucks with crew-served weapons in the back. Then came the big-money targets.
At the time, there was no illumination. We thought these were BMPs, but were not sure. When we fired them up, we fired sabot at first, and that had negative effect. It looked like it just went right through them. So we broke out the HE [high explosive], and we fired at approximately three tanks. I didn’t know it at the time, but later we discovered we killed two with one shot. They were in a line and the round went through both and blew their turrets right off. They went a good three hundred meters in the air. In fact, from my position almost a kilometer down the road, we had shrapnel coming down on us.
We continued to fight. Steel 6 [Marcone] continued to direct air support for us. You could tell there was mass confusion. People were falling out of vehicles. They were running back and forth. We just kept raining fire on them until the column stopped.
At daylight we drove up the road. There were body parts all over the place and bodies everywhere, a sea of body parts. We did a lot of damage to them. A lot of hurt.
The fight for Objective Peach was over. Colonel Marcone’s 3–69 Armored Battalion had first ground the 14th Brigade out of existence in getting to Peach and then had annihilated the 10th Armored Brigade when they tried to take it back. By morning, Marcone’s supporting artillery was out of ammunition and his own vehicles had used up their 25 mm HE and most of their machine-gun ammunition. Marcone later said, “If they’d thrown another brigade at us, we would have gone zero on ammo and it would have been hand-to-hand for the bridge.” The Iraqis had attacked bravely and at times ferociously, but they were nowhere near a match for what they ran into. In an interview long after the war, Marcone recalled:
The way they attacked unnerved me. They kept coming, rolling over their own dead. They should have learned. Fighting for us was easy. Killing at close range, though, is very hard and unforgettable. I am still dealing with having to kill so many people. Destroying the 10th Brigade still bothers me.
After the 10th Brigade’s counterattack was smashed, Grimsley called Perkins and told him to take his brigade through. Soon afterward, Perkins’s 2BCT pushed through Marcone’s exhausted troops and rushed for Baghdad. Thrown off balance, the Iraqis were never again able to offer coherent resistance. Individual units still often fought hard, but 3ID had little problem sweeping resistance aside, and seventy-two hours after Peach was declared secured, Perkins was leading his brigade on the first of two “Thunder Runs” that collapsed Saddam’s murderous regime.