FORWARD OPERATING BASE SUMMERALL, Iraq — Guerrillas hiding in “gasoline alley,” a fuel and maintenance district on the city’s south edge, opened fire on Staff Sgt. James Tucker’s platoon with grenades and AK-47s as it left Bayji around midday Nov. 9 after a quiet, three-hour patrol.
Tucker’s men — from Task Force 1-7, based at nearby FOB Summerall — jumped out and flanked the insurgents while gunners laid down cover fire with .50-caliber machine guns. When they’d killed or driven off the gunmen, they discovered nine homemade bombs and some rocket-propelled grenades.
“They were setting up for an attack,” said Tucker, 30, of Tulare, Calif. “It could have been a lot worse.”
Within a few minutes of that encounter U.S. and Iraqi troops in several parts of the city came under fire. U.S. patrols and convoys dodged heavy gunfire all the way down Highway 1, the main north-south thoroughfare in Bayji, a city of 125,000 people.
“There was so much gunfire, we couldn’t get through,” said Staff Sgt. Kelvin Manning, 29, of Valdosta, Ga., a platoon sergeant in the unit’s Battery C. “Pretty much the whole city, from every side, was fighting.”
For most Task Force 1-7 troops who were there, it was the longest, fiercest gunbattle they’d seen during nine months in Iraq.
“[Nov. 9] was the first time in a long time we’ve had a straight-up fight,” said Sgt. Melvin Davis of the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, currently assigned to Task Force 1-7.
“Usually [the rebels] just take off running,” said Spc. Greg McMeekan, 23, of Kalamazoo, Mich., one of Davis’ soldiers. “This time, hell no, they stood their ground.”
Task Force 1-7 combat platoons ran a gauntlet of rifle fire to take up positions at the police station and city hall, both on Highway 1. Tanks and Bradleys headed down “Market Street,” the city’s chief shopping area and the insurgents’ favorite spot for mounting attacks.
The armored vehicles blasted away at nests of rebels, inflicting heavy damage on the neighborhood.
“We destroyed a lot of the buildings, the places where they fight,” said Capt. Michael Byard, 30, of Trenton, N.J., the Battery C commander.
At one point, insurgents were firing at U.S. and Iraqi positions from behind a fuel truck on Highway 1. After getting permission from his commander, Tucker fired an AT4 rocket at the tanker.
It exploded in an enormous fireball that was visible for miles.
“It was like a nuclear bomb,” said Davis, 32, of Houston.
McMeekan, on the police department rooftop 500 meters away, said he had to turn his head away from the intense heat.
“I don’t know what happened to those [insurgents],” Tucker said, “but they weren’t there anymore.”
Late in the day, the opposition vanished into the city. Task Force 1-7 counted at least 20 enemy dead and left the downtown in ruins.
Soldiers can’t figure out why the people in Bayji side with the terrorists when the Americans have built new buildings for them and given out toys and school supplies to many of the city’s children.
“You hope they’ll become frustrated with the [insurgents], but they’re intimidated, too,” Byard said. “Why do they always attack the people who are trying to help them?”
“We tried to start out as humanitarians,” said Tucker, who has been nominated for a Bronze Star with Valor for his actions Nov. 9. “We tell these people, ‘we want to help but you have to help us.’”