By Edward Lee Pitts, Military Affairs
CAMP CALDWELL, Iraq -- One 278th Regimental Combat Team member and another U.S. soldier were killed by insurgents in a close-quarters firefight after an ambush south of Balad Ruz.
As many as 17 insurgents were killed in the Monday afternoon fighting, officials said.
"The whole gunfight lasted a little more than four hours, and in the realm of gunfights that's an extremely long time," said Lt. Dave Tiedeman, the 278th platoon leader of the attacked unit. "They knew we were coming."
The slain U.S. soldiers' names are being withheld pending notification of immediate family.
Two Iraqi Army soldiers also died in the attack, while two more soldiers in the Tennessee-based 278th and 15 Iraqi Army soldiers were wounded, according to initial reports. The wounded were taken by helicopter to a combat support hospital in Baghdad.
Lt. Col. Mark Hart, commander of the 278th's 1st Squadron, said the amount of weapons and types of documents recovered suggest the area was an anti-Iraqi forces base camp and training center. It likely was used for planning and arming insurgent attacks in the nearby cities of Baghdad, Baqubah and Balad Ruz, he said.
Acting on intelligence reports of a possible weapons cache about 40 kilometers east of Baghdad, a joint patrol of 278th soldiers from 1st Squadron, U.S. Special Forces and elements of the Iraqi Army drove into an ambush by insurgents among rows of mostly dried-up canal beds and irrigation ditches.
The insurgents attacked from multiple positions with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and small-arms fire at about 3:30 p.m. Iraqi time, officials said.
"They'd been there for a while and had a plan of how to defend it," said Maj. Martin Basham, the squadron's executive officer. "That is very unusual for insurgents. Most of the time they hit and run, but this time they stood and fought. They were trying to protect their supply source."
About 20 minutes after the fight began, 278th Humvees, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and tanks stormed out of Camp Caldwell to join the fight.
The pinned-down unit received air support from both fighter jets and attack helicopters. Several enemy vehicles stashed with weapons and ammunition were wiped out in multiple air strikes, officials said.
Commanders later moved artillery into firing positions near the battle, but shells never were fired. By the time the battle was over, nearly 200 278th soldiers had been involved in supporting and supplying the operation, officials said.
The fiercest combat took place between the insurgents and the initial patrol group of about 24 U.S. and about 200 Iraqi Army soldiers.
Lt. Tiedeman said his unit was on its third mission assisting and evaluating the Iraqi army company as part of a countrywide effort begun this month to strengthen Iraqi security forces.
The joint patrol and the insurgents fought close enough to lob hand grenades at one another from four-to-six-foot-deep irrigation ditches that both the insurgents and soldiers used as trenches.
"It was very hard to see them or see where the fire was coming from," said a 278th soldier who asked not to be identified. "It was a barrage. It was a free-for-all. It was chaos with bullets flying above your head and beside your head, cracking and popping. These were not your average run-of-the-mill insurgents."
Sgt. 1st Class Richard Stooksbury, who was in the initial group of about a dozen U.S. soldiers attacked, said the insurgents had placed weapons along each line of trenches so they could toss aside a weapon, fall back to the next trench and pick up a new one.
"The amount of (rocket-propelled grenades) fired at us was amazing," said Sgt. 1st Class Stooksbury, 48, who credited the constant .50 caliber machine gun fire from the Humvee gunners with preventing the insurgents from getting off aimed shots. "We drove into a shooters' alley. The explosions knocked you to the ground."
Commanders said U.S. and Iraqi forces took fire from three sides while establishing a defensive position. After the initial insurgent ambush, Lt. Tiedeman said, the coalition forces fell back, regrouped and overran two of the insurgent-held ditches.
"We made a plan and then went back at them," said Lt. Tiedeman, 38, of Watkins, Colo.
The soldiers then waited for reinforcements, exchanging gunfire intermittently with the remaining insurgents. Some of the insurgents had retreated into a nearby grove of trees the Iraqi army attempted to assault. Aircraft later bombed the grove.
Sgt. 1st Class Stooksbury, of Seymour, Tenn., said he went through 30 rounds of ammunition for his nine millimeter pistol. He said soldiers overrunning the trenches reloaded their weapons with ammunition the insurgents left behind.
Lt. Tiedeman, who was pinned down in open ground by an insurgent sniper while trying to bring a wounded soldier to safety, said he was saved when a U.S. Humvee appeared out of nowhere and its driver stopped in front of the sniper so the gunner could open up with his machine gun at close range.
The U.S. and Iraqi forces spent the night at the battlefield. The U.S. soldiers' night-vision goggles, along with thermal imaging provided by hovering aircraft, gave them the advantage in the darkness. U.S. aircraft on a late-night bombing run cleared the area of insurgent holdouts, soldiers said.
"With all our technology, we felt pretty safe," Sgt. 1st Class Stooksbury said.
No insurgents were found alive during a Tuesday morning sweep of the area. According to witnesses, several of the dead insurgents were foreign fighters whose bodies some Iraqi army soldiers spat upon.
"We owned that ground," Sgt. 1st Class Stooksbury said. "It was a fight to own it, and we didn't leave it."
Before U.S.-led Coalition Forces finally left the field by mid-morning Tuesday, military attack helicopters had destroyed what was left of a sizable weapons cache, commanders said.