US Marines Turn Fire on Civilians at the Bridge of Death
Mark Franchetti ñ The Sunday Times 30 March 2003
THE light was a strange yellowy grey and the wind was coming up, the beginnings of a sandstorm. The silence felt almost eerie after a night of
shooting so intense it hurt the eardrums and shattered the nerves. My footsteps felt heavy on the hot, dusty asphalt as I walked slowly towards the
bridge at Nasiriya. A horrific scene lay ahead.
Some 15 vehicles, including a minivan and a couple of trucks, blocked the road. They were riddled with bullet holes. Some had caught fire and turned
into piles of black twisted metal. Others were still burning.
Amid the wreckage I counted 12 dead civilians, lying in the road or in nearby ditches. All had been trying to leave this southern town overnight,
probably for fear of being killed by US helicopter attacks and heavy artillery.
Their mistake had been to flee over a bridge that is crucial to the coalitionís supply lines and to run into a group of shell-shocked young American
marines with orders to shoot anything that moved.
One manís body was still in flames. It gave out a hissing sound. Tucked away in his breast pocket, thick wads of banknotes were turning to ashes. His
Down the road, a little girl, no older than five and dressed in a pretty orange and gold dress, lay dead in a ditch next to the body of a man who may
have been her father. Half his head was missing.
Nearby, in a battered old Volga, peppered with ammunition holes, an Iraqi woman ó perhaps the girlís mother ó was dead, slumped in the back seat. A US
Abrams tank nicknamed Ghetto Fabulous drove past the bodies.
This was not the only family who had taken what they thought was a last chance for safety. A father, baby girl and boy lay in a shallow grave. On the
bridge itself a dead Iraqi civilian lay next to the carcass of a donkey.
As I walked away, Lieutenant Matt Martin, whose third child, Isabella, was born while he was on board ship en route to the Gulf, appeared beside me.
ìDid you see all that?î he asked, his eyes filled with tears. ìDid you see that little baby girl? I carried her body and buried it as best I could but
I had no time. It really gets to me to see children being killed like this, but we had no choice.î
Martinís distress was in contrast to the bitter satisfaction of some of his fellow marines as they surveyed the scene. ìThe Iraqis are sick people and
we are the chemotherapy,î said Corporal Ryan Dupre. ìI am starting to hate this country. Wait till I get hold of a frigginí Iraqi. No, I wonít get
hold of one. Iíll just kill him.î
Only a few days earlier these had still been the bright-eyed small-town boys with whom I crossed the border at the start of the operation. They had
rolled towards Nasiriya, a strategic city beside the Euphrates, on a mission to secure a safe supply route for troops on the way to Baghdad.
They had expected a welcome, or at least a swift surrender. Instead they had found themselves lured into a bloody battle, culminating in the worst
coalition losses of the war ó 16 dead, 12 wounded and two missing marines as well as five dead and 12 missing servicemen from an army convoy ó and the
humiliation of having prisoners paraded on Iraqi television.
There are three key bridges at Nasiriya. The feat of Martin, Dupre and their fellow marines in securing them under heavy fire was compared by armchair
strategists last week to the seizure of the Remagen bridge over the Rhine, which significantly advanced victory over Germany in the second world war.
But it was also the turning point when the jovial band of brothers from America lost all their assumptions about the war and became jittery aggressors
who talked of wanting to ìnukeî the place.
None of this was foreseen at Camp Shoup, one of the marinesí tent encampments in northern Kuwait, where officers from the 1st and 2nd battalions of
Task Force Tarawa, the 7,000-strong US Marines brigade, spent long evenings poring over maps and satellite imagery before the invasion.