TIKRIT, Iraq — At least 12 Iraqis looting ammunition from a military complex in northern Tikrit were killed late Sunday and early Monday in a confrontation with soldiers of Fort Hood's 4th Infantry Division.
No U.S. casualties were reported, although the night vision goggles and Kevlar helmet of one soldier apparently was hit with a 7.62mm round, probably from an AK-47 assault rifle. The helmet was knocked from the soldier's head.
The firefight is, to date, the 4th Infantry Division's most lethal encounter since some of its units entered Iraq from northern Kuwait a week ago. Portions of the division's 1st Brigade almost immediately pushed northward through Baghdad toward Tikrit and conducted sweeps of two military airfields, but encountered light resistance.
The incident in northern Tikrit began late Sunday when a scout platoon with the 1st Brigade's 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, spotted Iraqis loading munitions onto trucks inside the military complex, which is located in an area once under the control of the Republican Guard 5th Corps. Marines who had entered Tikrit more than a week ago began handing over responsibility for the city to the 4th Infantry Division over the Easter weekend.
The scouts, who were manning an observation post in the area, approached the vehicles, which reportedly were filled with ammunition for AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades.
"They saw the scouts and fired," said Maj. Brian Reed, the infantry battalion's executive officer. "The scouts returned fire and killed four." Reed said the Iraqis initially were not executing a military mission but simply looting. However, once the shooting began, "they started swarming" towards the U.S. scouts.
Lt. Col. Gian Gentile, the 1st Brigade's executive officer, said the Iraqis launched "what we believe was a coordinated military action, in that they separated themselves and they actually tried to envelop the scout platoon … And we know that they were led by former Republican Guards, people with military experience."
As the firefight continued, the battalion's quick reaction force, including Bradley Fighting Vehicles, also engaged. Reed said at least 12 Iraqis were killed in the fighting, perhaps as many as 16.
Some Iraqis retreated back into a bunker building complex and were surrounded. Gentile said they were taken into custody Monday afternoon.
Reed said he believed that many Iraqis are looting arms from military installations primarily because they want to resell the weapons, not necessarily to rearm for attacks on U.S. forces.
"But these guys last night, it was clear that they had other intentions once things started," he said.
Gentile said that the 4th Infantry Division is taking a more active approach to administering the Tikrit area than the Marines, which fielded a smaller force in the Tikrit area.
"The Marines established checkpoints, but they were more interested in maintaining control by not pushing buttons too hard," he said. And that may have provided an opportunity for Iraqis "who either were trying to gain or regain power," including remnants of Saddam Hussein's Baathist Party.
"We expect these kinds of actions to continue but be reduced as we show our presence and try to reestablish order in the cities," he said.
Prior to the fighting that began on Easter, Marine Brigadier Gen. John Kelly, who commanded the task force that first pushed into Tikrit, warned that a massive show of force could be provocative.
"They know we've got guns. They know we could crush this place in a New York second," he said.