KIFL, Iraq, April 2003 – In the first days of the Iraq war, soldiers in the U.S. army’s most decorated tank battalion were somewhat frustrated at not being in the fight.

Some worried the only stories they would have to tell would be of guarding roads, bridges or camps. Now they have real stories to tell but they are grisly not glamorous, reflecting the reality of war despite modern attempts to sanitise it.

They are stories of a dead baby girl lying in the middle of a road, of carrying a dead comrade in your arms, of shooting at a vehicle and then discovering it contained women and children.

After about a week travelling in Iraq without combat, the 2nd battalion 70th armoured regiment arrived in the village of Kifl on the eastern bank of the Euphrates river at the weekend and soon began to see the more harrowing signs of conflict.

Some soldiers spotted the body of the baby girl in the area, the scene of fierce fighting before they arrived. Distressed, they reported it to the battalion’s chaplain. He and some soldiers went to the site and performed a burial ceremony.

The chaplain, Glenn Palmer, estimated she was six or seven weeks old. Her head was mangled but her tiny torso was intact.

“You would have thought she was a doll until you got closer,” said Palmer, of Bath, Maine. The soldiers buried her facing Mecca in accordance with Muslim practice. Palmer said a Muslim prayer and placed a makeshift marker on her tiny grave.

“I’m sure she was Muslim and we respected that tradition,” he said.

From burial to battle

Just after the burial on Monday morning, the battalion went into action with soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division in an effort to destroy units of Iraq’s elite Republican Guard south of the city of Hillah.

They encountered fierce resistance early on and a soldier from the 101st, just a few days away from his 21st birthday, was shot dead. Captain Brad Loudon of the 2-70 battalion took the soldier’s body from a tank whose crew had retrieved it.

Loudon has seen some sobering sights since arriving in Kifl. Twisted and charred Iraqi bodies and body parts, many in the blackened wreckage of vehicles, are scattered around this area.

But Monday’s experience still made a deep impression.

“It’s something that’s going to stay with me,” said Loudon, a 28-year-old law graduate from Overland Park, Kansas.

“When it’s one of your own, and you actually see the life taken, it’s an eye-opening experience. You think about just how young he was and all the things he’s going to miss out on.”

The battle affected even veterans. A gunner who killed a group of Iraqi infantry by firing the main gun of his M1A1 Abrams tank said this war was more “up close and personal” than the tank battles he fought in open desert in the 1991 Gulf War.

Other soldiers recounted coming under rocket-propelled grenade and small arms fire from a white pickup truck. They responded with dozens of rounds of machine gun fire. Only later did they discover that women and children were inside.

They approached a ditch next to the truck into which some of the passengers had jumped while others fled. The soldiers found half a dozen women, three of them wounded including one who was pregnant, several small children and a few men.

“It kind of made me mad when I saw kids out there,” said Sergeant Jeremy Strasser, 25, of Coon Rapids, Iowa.

Soldiers said they were shocked by Iraqi forces bringing women and children into the firing line.

Troops transported the wounded women to the battalion’s base for medical treatment and they were then helicoptered to a U.S. military hospital. All were expected to survive, but the incident and will remain in the minds of the soldiers involved.

“I know it’s an oxymoron but we’re trained to fight a civilised war. These guys are having a hard time,” said chaplain Palmer. “This (use of women and children) just goes against everything these soldiers are raised with and trained with.”

(c) Reuters News