The Battle For Umm Qasr

<B> Scott Pelley</b> Reports From The Front Lines

Many young Americans got their first taste of battle this week. Some of them are Marines serving in Fox Company of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit. Correspondent Scott Pelley and Producer Bill Owens were with Fox Company this week as the Marines fought for control of Umm Qasr, the critical Iraqi port on the Persian Gulf. Now that the battle is over, they are seeing the first glimmer of what Iraq might become. It's a future that began the moment Fox Company started its dash through the desert in the middle of the night.


For the Marines of Fox Company, the war began with light and thunder, alongside British Royal Marines. The first casualties that night were their preconceived notions of the enemy.

Sergeant Robert Coppola, from L.A., was among the first Americans who rolled through the breach and into the fire.

"It was supposed to be a relatively easy target--just a lot of workers, not any resistance at all," he says. "And then, before we came in, they told us there was a tank regiment in the area and they had a bunch of Republican Guard and regular Army down here. So we came across the breach and we took contact. So the whole plan--okay, no more soft target, now we have to go hard target."

That meant, he says, a change from "a little lackadaisical" by Marine standards to the assumption that "we're going into a battle."

Their objective was the port at Umm Qasr. They took it without much of a fight. But soon they found that keeping it was a rolling battle.

Fox Company met resistance from an enemy they didn't recognize. Days after taking the port, they were under attack from Iraqis wearing civilian clothes, waving a white flag.

Captain Rick Crevier, the commander of Fox Company, learned one hard fact that day: "I certainly thought the laws of war would be understood," he says. "I didn't think we would be encountering enemies carrying white flags, dressed in civilian gear. I've learned they don't respect the white flag. I've learned they wave white flags at us and go on back to their defensive positions, and so it requires us to have our head on a swivel and be situationally aware."

It has, he says, put his men in a difficult position. "These men have performed superbly out here, very successfully, but you're right, it has put us in a awful spot," he says.

Corporal Mike Breslen, of Maryland, who was in the firefight on the hill, says the enemy here is "just too cowardly to wear their uniforms and fight us. So they are using terrorist techniques to inflict 'onesies' and 'twosies' of casualties instead of fighting us like men."

These are the tactics of a desperate Army being confronted by men like Cpl. Breslin.

"I think that's the only way they can fight us," he says. "They can't fight us face to face, because we can call air in from the ships. We got tanks right near by and within the squad. We have enough firepower to knock any enemy flat on their ass. They have to do this little hit-and-run tactics. They can't win any other way, and their not going to win. They're just trying to take out individual Marines. They're trying to feel good about or something."

That "hit and run" is repeating itself all over southern Iraq. When the main allied force moves through, Iraqi troops fill in from behind, shooting up convoys headed in every direction and harassing troops left behind to hold the ground.

Much of southern Iraq is a no mans land. With the iron grip of Saddam no long holding them, towns are in free fall. We visited a hospital without doctors or medicine, where the wounded were suffering and dying.

An angry crowd showed us their dead and, because we were the only Americans they'd seen, begged us for food and water, and for police to restore order.

This chaos is the reason Fox Company is defending the port. This is where humanitarian aid will land. That is perhaps as important a weapon as any in breaking Saddam's regime.

Fox Company is camped in a warehouse on the port. There's no electricity. There are no toilets. They've got a box of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), and that's about it. They're short on water and long on boredom, a familiar situation to every Marine.

The men call themselves "the raiders," and some of them are as young as 18 or 19 years olds. They're isolated. No news from home. No news of the wider war. No scores from the Final Four. Most of the time, the short wave doesn't draw home any closer.

"This is home, right here, nice and soft," says Scott Amerant, who comes from the San Francisco Bay Area. "It's nothing worse than what we've done before, so this is how we live in every training op. This is nothing different."

Their captain knows how to appreciate that. "It is an honor to be amongst this band of brothers," Capt. Crevier says. "Unfortunately I'm at a loss for words to describe what these folks have been doing for me, the people and the nation."

Crevier's band is from across the 50 states, but the 50 stars stay wrapped up. They're not supposed to show the flag. They got in trouble with the Pentagon for raising the Stars and Stripes over the port. No one's supposed to get the idea that America is here to stay.

Over the last several days, attacks on the port have all but stopped. Crevier doesn't think the enemy will last much longer, not least because they have no ability to replenish their supplies of food, water and bullets. "We control the waterways. We control the roads going in and out of here. There's no way they can get resupplied," says Crevier.

That control firmed up this week. Fox Company and other elements of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit left Umm Qasr for fresh combat up north. The British are holding the town.

Umm Qasr is the first and only significant town held by the allies. The guns aren't quite silent yet. But it's close enough for the Army to rush in the first humanitarian aid in Iraq.

Army and British forces are opening the taps on clean water, the first these families have seen in more than a week.

Just two hours after the shooting stopped, Captain James Thorpe was running an Army Civil Affairs team that brought water and power and food back to this city of 15,000.

"We now want to rebuild Iraq," Capt. Thorpe says. "We're going to go to a situation where they can take care of themselves in the next couple of months, and we as Americans can pull out, and the British."

There are so many children here, asking if the water is good, hardly able to believe that there was water they could drink.

This is the first time Iraqis came en masse to meet the troops that have swept through their country.

Most seemed grateful. Some were not. One man told us, "I have six children. We have no food or electricity. Why have you done this to us?"

Others rushed down the street as if to witness the beginning of a new world, still not quite trusting what they saw happening.

An older man waiting in the water line said, in perfect English, that he wanted to thank the Americans for the water. But when asked to speak on camera, he shook his head and looked over his shoulder. "There are detectives everywhere," he said. Asked what the water meant to him, he said, "the liberation of the Iraqi people." But then he hurried away.

Saddam's still holds territory on the ground and in the mind of Iraqis. But on one street, in the only town now held by the allies, his regime appears to be slipping like water through the fingers.

Americans like Randy Beutel may be witnessing the first free citizens of a new Iraq. When he saw the children running toward him, he thought of his own young niece and nephew back home. "It's hard to explain the feeling of joy," he says. "Now I know why I'm here."
  • Mary-Jayne McKay

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