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Last Bridge to Baghdad

By James Lacey
11/12/2018 • Military History Magazine

How the U.S. 3rd Infantry captured the al-Qa’id Bridge— “Iraq’s Remagen”—and opened the road into Baghdad.

Early on the morning of April 1, 2003, 12 days after the United States invaded Iraq, soldiers of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division were nervous and scared as they approached the Karbala Gap, a mile-wide barren chokepoint between a lake and the town of Karbala. There, the Americans had been warned, was where Saddam Hussein would most likely hit them with chemical weapons in a last-ditch at- tempt to stop the invasion.

But they were wrong. The division’s 1st Brigade, led by Colonel Will Grimsley, moved unmolested through the no man’s land and began consolidating on the other side, exhausted by the tedious passage and the tension of expecting to be fired on by exotic weapons. Major General Buford “Buff” Blount, the division commander, read the lack of resistance as evidence the Iraqis were reeling, and he was not about to give them time to recover. He ordered Grimsley to cancel a 12-hour rest and to get moving again by noon. Soon afterward, Lt. Col. Rock Marcone’s 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment, was refueled and headed north toward the next objective, the alQa’id Bridge across the Euphrates River. The bridge, it would turn out, was what the soldiers in the 3rd Infantry should have been worrying about all along.

U.S. Army commanders referred to it as Objective Peach, four-lane twin steel and concrete spans that formed the most defensible line for the Iraqis. If the U.S. Army could be kept from crossing the river, it might never take Baghdad. Lieutenant General Raad al-Hamdani, commander of Iraq’s Republican Guard south of Baghdad, had long recognized the importance of the bridge. He called it Iraq’s Remagen, after a crucial bridge across Germany’s Rhine River captured by the U.S. Army in 1945. Remagen was “worth its weight in gold,” according to General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Two weeks earlier, al-Hamdani had put a company on the bridge under the command of one of his best junior officers and ordered him to blow the bridge up if he even suspected the Americans were approaching. A week later he sent his chief of staff to the bridge to make sure it was well defended and that the demolitions were in place. However, that officer took it upon himself to countermand al-Hamdani’s order, telling the bridge commander Saddam had ordered that no bridges be destroyed and that if the bridge was blown up al-Hamdani would be executed for it. The officer charged with demolition decided against implementing al-Hamdani’s original orders as 3rd Infantry Division tanks approached. Al-Hamdani later said: “Both men acted out of personal loyalty to me, but it was a big mistake. It cost us the war.”

Not knowing how long the bridge would remain standing, Marcone’s combat-tested battalion set a furious pace as it headed north. Along the way the U.S. troops met sporadic resistance that only two weeks earlier would have forced a delay. But in the two weeks since they had invaded Iraq, Marcone’s men and the rest of the 3rd Infantry Division soldiers had become veterans. Now only the most determined resistance called for a halt. For Marcone’s soldiers, enemy contacts merited only a quick radio report as his battalion destroyed everything it encountered and continued to advance. Radio traffic became a litany of targets spotted, engaged and destroyed. Only at one point did the American battalion encounter real trouble: when 200 Iraqis fired from behind fortified positions into the flanks of the onrushing armored columns. Alpha Company veered out of the advancing column and annihilated the position before rejoining the battalion 15 minutes later.

What Marcone’s troops were reporting as light and sporadic contact was actually the entire 14th Brigade of Iraq’s Medina Division. One Iraqi general later said, looking back on that attack: “The speed at which you maneuver armor is hard to understand. The American soldiers are very disciplined. They fight like robots and engage and kill everything on the battlefield. The Americans did not even seem to react to our defensive plans. They simply fought their way through anything that stood in their path.”

Meanwhile General al-Hamdani, sensing that his front was collapsing, rushed to the Medina Division headquarters north of Karbala. While being briefed by the division commander, alHamdani proudly watched the 1st Regiment of the 14th Brigade form up to launch a counterattack. But a regiment in attack formation was a tempting and rarely found target, and U.S. satellites immediately spotted it. Before the regiment could move forward, American jets pounced. As al-Hamdani looked on, the regiment was annihilated in blast and flame.

Shortly after 1300 hours, when al-Hamdani was called back to Baghdad for the most incredible meeting of the war, all he could do for the Medina commander was tell him to hold on and that he would send whatever reinforcements were available. By that time Marcone’s leading tanks had already covered half the 40-mile distance from Karbala to the bridge, and the Medina’s 14th Brigade was all but destroyed.

When Marcone’s troops were only a few miles from the bridge, Grimsley ordered a sustained multibattery artillery barrage, followed by a series of pinpoint attacks on each of the buildings in the immediate vicinity of the bridge, to wipe out any local defenders. Just as Marcone’s soldiers closed on the bridge, the far side erupted into balls of dust and flame. Marcone could not be sure that the bridge would not blow up as soon as he started crossing, so he decided to take it with a river assault.

He ordered Captain Todd Kelly’s C Company of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, which included one tank platoon, 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 300 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 with Iraqi artillery fire already opening up, and fearing they might blow the bridge at any moment, he ordered the first boat to arrive to cross the river immediately. As one lieutenant remembered it: “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 paddleboat, which 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 protection. After the battle 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 had volunteered to go over in the first boat.

By the time the first boat was halfway across, Hibner had his second boat in the water. After what seemed an interminably long time, both boats made it across and began expanding their toehold at the base of the bridge. As the engineers started to cut wires leading to the bridge, the infantry began clearing Iraqis out of nearby buildings. Hibner got across in the third boat.

Hibner directed the initial wirecutting activities and ordered the exposed wires shunted off, so that stray radio waves would not set off explosives. He also let the infantry continue clearing a few nearby buildings until they stumbled on a manned and intact bunker complex. He ordered his men to pull back and set up defensive positions, knowing he did not have enough men to take on bunkers and they also needed to be ready to repel any 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, who was awarded the Silver Star for leading this action, later said: “It was a good feeling to hear the rumbling of the tanks on the bridge….it meant the demise of the Iraqis who were still shooting at us.”

Captain Jared Robbins led his company across the bridge and secured the far side. Then Captain Dave Benton led his B Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, through Robbins’ troops and began making his way through the smoke and debris toward a canal bridge on the far side. His mission was to occupy a position where he could cover the bridge with fire and not allow any Iraqi to cross it. Navigating proved tricky, and it took Benton time to find a narrow dirt road his Bradley fighting vehicles could move on. The road was too restricted for tanks, so Benton left them in an overwatch position on a hill and went forward with the Bradleys.

Two hundred yards past the bridge, Benton’s Bradley ran into a dug-in Iraqi BMP fighting vehicle, which he had failed to see because of the smoke. Immediately backing up 50 meters, Benton fired high-explosive 25mm rounds into it until the turret blew off. His own vehicle was then hit by a missile from a second BMP, which he quickly dispatched with 25mm fire. By then Benton was getting heavy fire from entrenched Iraqis and, with his unit strung out, could not find maneuver room to add additional firepower. He ordered his infantrymen 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 managed to destroy four more BMPs before his 25mm malfunctioned. Benton moved forward until he found a spot where he could pull over and let the other Bradleys swing past him toward the canal bridge. They destroyed two more BMPs as they advanced.

Within moments, Benton sensed the fight had gone out of the remaining Iraqis. Afterward he 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 10 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. The rest of the brigade could not be far behind.

By 1700, Marcone had his entire battalion across the al-Qa’id Bridge and in defensive positions. They met with sporadic resistance, but before dark Marcone had five companies of mixed armor and infantry tied into a single defensive front braced for an Iraqi counterattack. However, for the next several hours the Iraqis made only occasional platoon and company attacks, and Marcone assumed they were incapable of mounting a major threat, but he was wrong.

The attacks were actually probes by special forces and Republican Guard units designed to find weak points in the line. As the Americans repelled those assaults, the Iraqi 10th Armored Brigade was forming up for the most powerful counterattack of the war.

Meanwhile General al-Hamdani had returned to Baghdad to meet with Saddam’s son Qusay, the minister of defense, and other senior commanders. It was one of the more bizarre meetings in the history of a regime that made a habit of disavowing reality for wishful thinking. Al-Hamdani remembered:

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 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.

Al-Hamdani strenuously objected to the plan, saying 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 there could be no further point of discussion: Hussein had spoken. Qusay allowed al-Hamdani to explain his view:

I said that a minor attack was moving up the Tigris along the line from An Nasiriyah to Al Kut. 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.

After al-Hamdani finished, Qusay turned back to the minister of defense and the Republican Guard chief of staff to ask their opinions. The minister said that he did not know whether al-Hamdani was right or wrong, but plans should still be carried out as Hussein had ordered. “He said that we should execute the plan as Saddam directed,” al-Hamdani remembered. “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.”

Al-Hamdani recalled that Qusay seemed unsure of what to do, but he finally ordered the Al Nida Republican Guard Division and the 16th Regular Army Division to support the Republican Guard I Corps, which was tasked to defend Iraq from the American thrust coming from northern Jordan. According to al-Hamdani, “He also directed a withdrawal from Karbala and that all units move to the east side of the Euphrates.”

Realizing the argument was lost, al-Hamdani tried to salvage something and asked for permission to destroy the strategic al-Qa’id Bridge on the Euphrates. He got Qusay’s permission and then went to talk privately to the chief of staff. They had been speaking for only a moment when al-Hamdani received a call informing him that the al-Qa’id Bridge had fallen to the Americans. The reporting officer said 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,” said al-Hamdani. He later wrote of that 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 48 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 goodbyes 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.

In utter disbelief at the scene he had just witnessed, al-Hamdani left the meeting to go back to the fight, while the generals, Saddam and his sons dealt with what al-Hamdani called their “imaginary universe.”

At the front al-Hamdani discovered that the bridge was still standing and that the Americans were across the Euphrates in strength. He ordered counterattacks. 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 to the 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 demanded that al-Hamdani order a major counterattack to retake the bridge.

Al-Hamdani assembled a substantial force around the 10th Armored Brigade. He recalled: “The attack moved forward slowly because we did not have night vision….The Medina Division’s commander and I followed the 10th Armored Brigade with our communications groups….At 0200 American jets at- tacked 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 communication 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.”

Al-Hamdani knew that all was lost. But 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,” al-Hamdani recalled. “He saluted me and said, ‘I am a martyr, and I promise I will not return without accomplishing my mission.’” Within half an hour the tank commander fell.

By daybreak, al-Hamdani had managed to get several hundred special forces soldiers to within a few hundred yards of the bridge. They had several trucks filled with explosives for a final rush to blow up the bridge. Just as al-Hamdani was about to give the order for a suicidal charge, disaster struck. “At that moment, a huge number of American aircraft and combat helicopters launched a series of intense attacks,” al-Hamdani said. “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….I lost hope and ordered a withdrawal.”

For Marcone’s men the counterattack came as a shock. They had been fighting off small, hastily gathered bands, assuming this was the best the Iraqis could do. Nonetheless, Marcone had left little 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 a counterattack. He guessed right. When the counterattack came, the 10th Brigade drove right through both the preplanned artillery coordinates and the kill-box. The Iraqis were met with a storm of devastation.

Bravely, the battered survivors continued to come on. First Lieutenant Jim Temple’s report on the action is indicative of what 22 other platoons 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 rounds], 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 300 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. [Marcone] continued to direct air support for us. We stopped up the column right here. 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 the bridge was over. Colonel Marcone’s battalion had annihilated the 10th Armored Brigade when it tried to take back the Euphrates crossing. By morning, Marcone’s artillery was out of ammo and his vehicles had used up their 25mm high explosive rounds and most of their machine gun ammo. Marcone later said, “If they threw another brigade at us we would have gone zero on ammo, and it would have been hand-to-hand for the bridge.”

In an interview after the capture of Baghdad, Marcone remembered: “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.”

 

Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.  

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