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SOUTHERN IRAQ — When snipers from the 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment came upon a dug-in fighting position along the highway south of Nasiriyah, they were shocked at what they found.

While the Iraqi soldiers were gone, they had left behind significant quantities of weapons, chemical protective gear, food stores and even unit rosters. The complexity of supplies suggests the Iraqi units are better supplied and trained than previously thought.

“I’m shocked at how well-organized they are,” said Sgt. Fred Kittman, part of the sniper team that uncovered the trench line. “We were told that these Iraqi units down this way weren’t this well-supplied and trained.”

Among the weapons recovered:

• 13 French-made Milan anti-tank rockets, primed and ready to fire.• Five rocket-propelled grenades.• 48 60 mm high explosive mortar rounds.• 13 80 mm white phosphorous mortar rounds.

“It looked liked everyone just walked off the line and stripped down,” said Kittman. “You could see flip-flop impressions leading away from the fighting positions.”

The Marines collected tan and olive Iraqi uniforms, black berets and boots. They also found a unit roster that they believe details the members of Iraqi 3rd Battalion, 47th Brigade, 11th Infantry Division. The Iraqi unit, garrisoned near Nasiriyah, surrendered to U.S. troops and sat out the fighting.

Personal items in the trench line included gas masks, water purification devices and instructions on how to use the chemical protective gear.

“All the NBC gear was in the plastic with extra canisters,” said Marine Sgt. James Zourek, another sniper involved in the recovery. “We saw instructions on how to use atropine.”

Finally, the Marines found stashes of fresh vegetables and oil, which suggested that the Iraqi troops hadn’t been gone long.

“There was bags of fruit and bread out there,” Zourek added. “It couldn’t have been there more than a couple days.”

What the Marines didn’t find in the trench also spoke volumes. There were no small arms, heavy machine guns or mortars.

“We didn’t find anything indigenous to a person trying to protect themselves,” Kittman said. “Nothing that would suggest they abandoned their personal gear that they carried.”

The Marines discovered that the Iraqi troops had two lines of defense along the supply route.

“They had the forethought to think we were going to come down here and they were waiting for us,” Kittman said.

— Mark Oliva is embedded with the 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment.

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