'I looked down the road and saw a rocket heading towards us. I thought I was dead'

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The Independent Online

Wounded American soldiers told yesterday how they were attacked with rocket- propelled grenades and Kalashnikov fire by groups of Iraqi troops in civilian clothes.

Wounded American soldiers told yesterday how they were attacked with rocket- propelled grenades and Kalashnikov fire by groups of Iraqi troops in civilian clothes.

The soldiers, who were caught up in heavy fighting near the town of Nasiriyah, said they had been told by their senior officers not to expect such strong resistance. The area has been the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the war.

More than 50 marines were wounded during fighting for control of a vital bridge over the Euphrates river and 30 other casualties were caused in an Iraqi rocket attack on a marine camp near the town. Three of the soldiers spoke to journalists yesterday after they were flown to a US military hospital at Landstuhl, Germany.

Sergeant Charles Horgan, 21, said he was among an armoured vehicle patrol from the 30th Infantry Regiment sent to investigate reports of civilians in the area around the bridge. He said he saw six Iraqis whom he assumed were civilians heading towards him; in fact they were wearing civilian clothes over their uniforms.

Sgt Horgan, the gunner on the lead Humvee vehicle, said: "I could see there was something wrong with them. They seemed edgy or jumpy. They looked nervous and seemed to be trying to formulate some kind of plan.

"I saw what I thought was a rifle. I turned my turret towards them so I could possibly engage them with the machine-gun. That's when I heard a pop from further down the road. I looked down the road and right as I looked there was a rocket headed towards us.

"It was just like in the movies. I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm going to die. I'm going to lose my legs'. No sooner than I said it, it blew me off the truck. I looked down and saw I had my legs. I was pretty relieved about that."

Sgt Horgan said that he tried to run, but his foot buckled and he feared at the time he might have lost it. He saw the next grenade fly past him and hit the truck behind, but all the soldiers escaped unhurt.

The NCO, whose injured foot is expected to need extensive treatment, said his thoughts now were more on recovering than the war. "Nobody can be shot and say, 'Wow, I really want to go back out there. That was great'," he said.

Staff Sgt Jamie Villafane, 31, the driver of the Humvee, said the soldiers had been warned that the Iraqis might not be civilians. The sergeant, who has a wound in his left arm, said he managed to pull the Humvee back, pursued the assailants and got four to drop their rifles and surrender.

"I was all dazed, next thing I remember I started engaging the guys to the left of us who were firing at us, the civilians who were firing at us. I could see they were all terrified," said the sergeant. "They had robes on to look like Bedouins but they had a mud hut there with lots of weapons in."

He said that he understood why the Iraqis had disguised themselves. "We are better trained and equipped than they are, they have to do whatever they have to do.''

Marine Lance Corporal Joshua Menard, also being treated at Landstuhl, said he met similar Iraqi tactics at the bridge on Sunday. He was hit in the left hand.

"We were very surprised," he said. "We were told they were going to show little or no resistance but it was a whole different ball game. They showed a lot of resistance. We were more prepared in the last Gulf War when when they rolled over and surrendered most of the time.''

The death toll

Combatants

American

Killed in combat: 15

Accidental and other

Deaths: 9

Missing: 16; Captured: 7

British

Killed in combat: 4

Accidental and other

deaths: 18 (including David Clarke, right, who at 19 was the youngest British casualty so far)

Missing: 0

Iraqi

Killed in combat: about 500; Missing: N/A

Other

Killed: 57 Kurds, most from the Komala Islami group

Civilians

American

Missing: 2 (journalists for Newsday)

British

Killed: 1

Missing: 3 (a "human shield", two ITN crew members)

Iraqi

Killed: About 350 killed in bombings, including at least 14 in Baghdad's Shaab district

Other

Killed: 8 (one French television journalist, one Australian cameraman, five Syrian bus passengers on the Iraqi border, one Jordanian taxi driver in Baghdad)

Missing: 5 (Correspondent for Arabic television channel, three-man team from Dubai-based channel and a Spanish freelance photographer)

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