By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 25, 2004; Page A01
BAQUBAH, Iraq, June 24 -- The 1st Infantry Division soldiers who walked off the battlefield Thursday, exhausted by the frantic pace of combat and a baking summer sun, had seen nothing like it in their three months here.
In dawn-to-dusk fighting, more than 100 armed insurgents overran neighborhoods and occupied downtown buildings, using techniques that U.S. commanders said resembled those once employed by the Iraqi army. Well-equipped and highly coordinated, the insurgents demonstrated a new level of strength and tactical skill that alarmed the soldiers facing them.
By the end of the day, infantry and armored patrols had driven the insurgents from the battered center of the city, though some remained in control of two police stations in districts long hostile to the U.S.-led occupation. Two U.S. soldiers were killed in the fight, including a company commander struck by a rocket-propelled grenade.
"They were definitely better than what we normally face," said Lt. T.J. Grider, 25, whose platoon fought for more than 12 hours. "But I think what we did today was pretty significant."
Coming less than a week before the U.S. occupation formally ends, the attacks brought into sharp focus the threat that lies ahead for Iraq's interim government and the challenge that remains for U.S. forces who will stay here to defend it. The U.S.-trained Iraqi police were routed or abandoned their posts rather than face a more capable foe, and military commanders here said the battle for this city 35 miles northeast of Baghdad was far from over.
The insurgents fought in large, coordinated squads, set complex ambushes and occupied downtown buildings from which they apparently planned a long fight, U.S. military commanders said. Striking first along two key avenues bracketing the city, the insurgents intended to isolate and overrun the local Coalition Provisional Authority compound and other downtown government buildings, the commanders said.
Several U.S. commanders suggested the insurgents had learned the tactics in recent weeks from skilled guerrilla commanders from outside the city, perhaps led by foreign fighters who came to Iraq to fight the occupation. They noted that the city's merchants received no warning of the attack, as they had before an armed uprising here in April. Many people struggled through rush-hour traffic, only to be turned away by the fighting.
The preparation had apparently been underway for weeks, with the attacks timed to be part of a series across Iraq on Thursday. After a powerful U.S. airstrike stopped the insurgents' momentum here before noon, soldiers found large weapons stockpiles in the rubble of a building and machine-gun positions set up at a technical college nearby.
"He's still in the city, and he's hiding. But he'll be back," said Lt. Col. Steve Bullimore, the task force commander responsible for Baqubah, referring to his enemy. "I'm regrouping and waiting for the next fight. But I don't know when that will be."
Baqubah, which sits amid groves of date palms and scorched plains, has troubled U.S. forces throughout the occupation. Its political life was controlled for years by tribal leaders and former military officers, who lived well when Saddam Hussein was in power. Now many of them are the foot soldiers and mid-level commanders of the local insurgency, U.S. commanders here said.
In what they believed was a major blow to the insurgents here, Bullimore's troops killed a man suspected of being the local leader of the insurgency, Hussein Ali Septi, in a gun battle last week in the rebellious village of Buhriz, south of the city. Thirteen insurgents and one U.S. soldier were killed in the fighting. But the attacks on troops have continued.
For the past several weeks, Bullimore has been sending sniper teams into the city to kill insurgents planting roadside bombs under cover of darkness. The bombs, made of artillery shells or tank rounds and detonated by remote control, have ravaged his soldiers as they move along main supply routes.
Late Wednesday night, Grider, the platoon leader, worked with a sniper team in the Tahrir district, just south of the government center. Overlooking Canal Street, a main avenue through the city of 250,000 people, the sniper on the team fired on two men setting bombs. Grider said both fell dead -- the fourth and fifth of the week.
Soon afterward, AK-47 assault rifle fire whistled around the neighborhood. It would continue for several hours, lighting the predawn sky with tracer bullets. But Grider and his men pulled into their camp safely at 4:30 a.m., heading to bed.
Two hours later, as a platoon of Bradley Fighting Vehicles moved along the western edge of town sweeping for roadside bombs, Capt. Travis Van Hecke was awakened by a screeching radio in the office next to his room.
"We're hit," the voice screamed. The ambush with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades killed two soldiers, including the captain commanding the company.
"The group that came down here today was more accurate and a little more feisty than we have seen," said Van Hecke, 29, of Lomira, Wis. "Today this place just blew up."
Over the next few hours, groups of insurgents took over police stations in Buhriz and in the western district of Mufrek, where they killed seven Iraqi police officers.
Meanwhile, soldiers rushed the wounded from the ambushed Bradleys to a hospital across the city. A convoy carrying several wounded soldiers was ambushed several times by insurgents who appeared to be expecting them. Two Bradleys were disabled and had to be towed away.
By 9 a.m., the insurgents had seized three buildings on the eastern edge of the city near the soccer stadium. Bullimore said he tracked groups of men entering the buildings and taking up fighting positions inside. He called in an airstrike.
Minutes later, three 500-pound guided bombs fell through the buildings, collapsing them in heaps of rubble. Van Hecke's company, which had been ordered to secure the area around the stadium, picked through the sites. They found dozens of 50mm rockets, boxes of AK-47 ammunition and an array of mortars.
"It looked like he planned to fight there for a while," Bullimore said. "It was more than just a hit-and-run attack."
Early in the day, a group associated with Jordanian-born guerrilla Abu Musab Zarqawi asserted responsibility on Arabic-language satellite television channels for taking the police stations. But Bullimore, who said he thought people from outside the city may have organized the attacks, said the tactics did not fit the pattern of Zarqawi's past operations. Those allegedly include car bombings and the beheading of American businessman Nicholas Berg and South Korean translator Kim Sun Il.
By early afternoon, fighting in the streets had ebbed. After hours in tanks and Bradleys, in temperatures that reached 111 degrees, dozens of soldiers were feeling the effects of heat exhaustion. Many in Van Hecke's 115-man company received fluids intravenously.
Across several downtown blocks, damage was extensive. At the university, the scene of heavy fighting early in the day, glass from blown-out windows littered the campus. A group of people began looting the buildings when U.S. troops left the site, but they stopped once the troops returned.
In the early afternoon, Apache helicopters skipped over the city's edges, firing rockets that sent up columns of black smoke when they detonated. Bullimore said later that their target was a black sedan that had been carrying men wearing the insurgency's black uniforms.
Hours after the fighting calmed, only a few people had returned to the streets.
In recent weeks, young company and platoon commanders here have been told to prepare for the June 30 handover to the interim Iraqi government by giving the Iraqi police more authority on the streets. But the inability of the police to stand up to the insurgency Thursday will slow the process, soldiers said.
"That changeover is going to be a little tougher," said Van Hecke, a West Point graduate. "But I guess some can say the only reason they are doing these attacks is because we are here. There are two sides to every coin."
With only two hours of sleep over the past two days, Grider cleaned his M-4 rifle on the sofa of a common room as night fell. "Jeopardy" played on the television as he tested the infrared scope. He said he was on standby, prepared to lead his platoon out if called on later in the evening.
"I don't know what's going to happen," said Grider, a West Point graduate from Chicago. "You have to give Iraqis a chance to do it themselves. That's going to happen over the next few weeks, and they'll prove they can do it or our mission will stay pretty much unchanged."