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Storm doesn't slow Marines' advancement


Story Identification Number: 20033277029
Story by Sgt. Joseph R. Chenelly

MARINE COMBAT HEADQUARTERS, Southern Iraq(March 26, 2003) -- A significant sandstorm helped warriors of I Marine Expeditionary Force mark the end of the first week of Operation Iraqi Freedom, March 25.

Despite a driving wind that, at times, exceeded speeds of 60 knots while blasting sand, pebbles and debris across the southern Iraqi desert, Marine regimental combat teams encountered at least two major engagements with enemy forces without taking casualties.

U.S. Marine Task Force Tarawa seized a hospital in the southern Iraqi city of An Nasiriyah being used, as a staging area for Iraqi para-military forces. Marines captured 170 enemy prisoners of war, located large weapons cache and uncovered more than 3,000 chemical protective suits with masks in the hospital. Iraqi military uniforms and a T-55 tank also were found on the compound.

The task force, which mostly consists of 2nd Marine Regiment, took fire from the hospital the day prior. Using loudspeakers, the leathernecks advised any doctors or patients who may have been in the hospital to evacuate. No civilians were found inside.

The building was clearly marked as a hospital. A flag with a red crescent, which is the Arabic equivalence to the red cross, flapped in the strong winds outside.

It is believed enemy soldiers dressed in civilian attire were being bussed to the hospital, according to Col. Ron Johnson, Task Force Tarawa's operations officer. The Iraqi soldiers would then draw weapons and ammunition in order to fight in the city.

The 170 enemy prisoners of war caught during this seizure raised the total number of EPWs to approximately 500 for Task Force Tarawa. Marines as a whole force have ensnared nearly 4,000 in the first week of fighting.

Helicopter operations were severely limited during the storm, but fixed-wing close air support was operational the entire time. First Marine Regiment was supported by AV-8B Harrier jump jets during battle, and other Marine jets dropped bombs on enemy forces throughout the sandstorm.

Other Marine regimental command teams continued their push north toward Baghdad. The 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) ended its tour under British command and is now receiving further tasking from I MEF.

The whipping sand and damaging winds wrecked havoc in the encampment established for I MEF's forward command element. Camouflage netting was ripped to the ground. Nearly 100 two-man tents were knocked down and turned into sand drifts.

Control of the I MEF and its assets was passed from the forward combat operations center back at Camp Commando, Kuwait, during the storm. The forward post continued to monitor battlefield happenings to maintain situational awareness, said Maj. David Pere, a senior watch officer in the forward COC.

"We could take control back at any time if need be.," Pere said. "There is no degradation of capabilities either way. That is the magic of today's technology."

The command element in southern Iraq reclaimed control immediately after the powerful winds let up.

While Camp Commando controlled the fight, they came under missile attack again. A U.S. Patriot missile intercepted an Iraqi missile in the air near Commando. According to Army Maj. Brian Bowen of the 108th Patriot Brigade, the shockwave felt by Marines was considerable.

On March 20, a missile impacted near the Kuwaiti camp. Windows were blown out and Marines were knocked from their chairs then.

Bowen said 12 missiles had been fired at U.S. forces since combat operations began - Patriots shot all but two down. The others landed outside of areas that were in Patriot batteries' range of responsibility.

The morning of March 26 saw the Marine command post digging out and repairing damages from the storm. The infantry units continued their barrage on the Iraqi regime and its forces.

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