HINDIYAH, Iraq – "We've got to get her off that bridge," he said.
Capt. Chris Carter winced at the risks his men would have to take. Engaged in a lightning-fast raid for this Euphrates River town, they were battling for a bridge when -- through the smoke -- they saw the elderly woman. She had tried to race across the bridge when the Americans arrived, but was caught in the crossfire.
At first, peering through their rifle scopes, they thought she was dead, like the man sprawled in the dust nearby. But then, during breaks in the gunfire that whizzed over her head, she sat up and waved for help.
Carter, a 32-year-old Army Ranger, ordered his Bradley armored vehicle to pull forward while he and two men ran behind it. They took cover behind the bridge's iron beams.
Carter tossed a smoke grenade for more cover and approached the woman, who was crying and pointing toward a wound on her hip. She wore the black chador, common among older women in the countryside. The blood soaked through the fabric, streaking the pavement around her.
Medics placed the woman on a stretcher and into an ambulance; Carter stood by, providing cover with his M16A4 rifle. Then she was gone, and Monday's battle for this town of 80,000, 50 miles south of Baghdad, raged on.
By the end of this day, the Army would fight street to street, capture and kill scores of Saddam Hussein's troops, blow up a ruling party headquarters and destroy heaps of ammunition and mortars -- and rescue one elderly woman from a firefight.
It was a brief incursion, one of many probing attacks into territory controlled by the Republican Guard -- deft strikes, seeking to determine the strength and positioning of opposing forces, while doling out punishment.
They lost no men, but it wasn't easy. From the very beginning officers in the 4th Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment described the mission as "hairy."
One town, one battalion.
"Yeah, hold a strategic bridge with one infantry company that has only two platoons, a hell of a mission," Lt. Col. Philip DeCamp, the battalion commander, said with a wry smile. He assigned a tank platoon to help the infantry unit -- Attack Company, aka A Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry -- take the bridge and search the police station.
They rolled in the early morning, and by 7 a.m had reached Hindiyah -- Arabic for "Indian," an apparent reference to Indian soldiers who once served the British in Iraq.
Iraqi forces began shooting at Americans as soon as they reached the outskirts. One rocket-propelled grenade hit a Bradley at short range, punching a two-inch deep hole into its armor. The Bradley kept rolling, undeterred.
Tanks shot every military vehicle they saw, setting them on fire. One vehicle sparked and popped as hundreds of rounds of ammunition inside burned and exploded.
Fighters in civilian clothes, checkered Arab scarves pulled over their heads and faces, clutched Kalashnikov rifles as they weaved down alleyways and around shop fronts.
"There's a guy on the left, I think he's got an RPG," Sgt. Robert Compton of Oklahoma City shouted into the intercom of the commanding officer's Bradley, looking through a periscope at what he believed was a rocket-propelled grenade.
"Where? Where?" asked Staff Sgt. Bryce Ivings, the Bradley's gunner.
"Scan left," barked Carter, the commanding officer. "Open fire!"
The 25 mm cannon shook the Bradley and the smell of gunpowder filled the passenger compartment. No one stopped to see if the man was killed or wounded.
U.S. troops soon took over the center of the town and the western bridgehead. But Iraqi forces on the eastern side of the river repeatedly fired on infantrymen as they took up positions on rooftops and behind sandbagged bunkers that the Iraqis had set up on the streets to defend the city.
While the tanks blocked key intersections, it was Attack Company's job to seize the western side of the bridge and the police station. Two tanks blocked the road running parallel to the river and another barricaded the main boulevard leading to the bridge.
The troops stopped at the river, at a bridge that would have attracted little notice if it was crossing a narrow river at home. On the west side: 10 Bradleys and four tanks. On the east side, 200 yards away: Iraqi defenders, firing machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
Engineers inspected the bridge for explosives, while infantrymen scrambled to cover them. Soldiers reported that some Iraqi fighters were using women as human shields; others saw civilian pickups loaded with weapons and children riding alongside the fighters.
Suddenly, a dark blue car came racing over the rise of the bridge. A tank fired into the car, blowing it up at mid-span.
A U.S. officer was wounded in the leg when a bullet ricocheted through the open, rear door of his armored vehicle. He was evacuated, along with the Iraqi woman.
"Guys are shooting RPGs from across the river, in all those reeds," said Col. David Perkins, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade.
"Let's put some artillery in there," he said, pointing across the dark green river.
Soon 155 mm artillery shells were whistling through the sky, setting off huge explosions. Spotters had identified a building that the fighters were apparently using to resupply. It was hit by four artillery rounds, and the Iraqi resistance seemed to slow.
Meanwhile, an infantry platoon searched the police station. They found a small cache of weapons, dozens of portraits of Saddam and three prisoners who claimed to be army deserters and said they had not been fed in three days. Carter gave them some rations, and they were eventually released.
Across town, a tank company battled Iraqi troops guarding an ammunition depot. The tanks killed 20 men but captured 20 others, all wearing the insignia of the Republican Guard Nebuchadnezzar Brigade, based in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit.
This could be significant. A senior official at U.S. Central Command, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the brigade may have moved south to bolster defenses that have been devastated by the U.S.-led forces.
At the local Baath party headquarters, Attack Company's 2nd Platoon found tons of ammunition and hundreds of weapons.
"They have more weapons and ammunition than my entire company," Carter said. Smaller weapons caches were found in other locations, marked on maps hung in the police station and interpreted by an intelligence officer fluent in Arabic.
Other maps inside the party headquarters also showed the Iraqi military positions nearby and the expected route of a U.S. attack.
Engineers rigged the building with explosives, and DeCamp fired tank rounds into the burning building to make sure everything was destroyed.
As the American ended their mission, hundreds of Iraqi civilians began to fill the streets, waving white flags over their heads. The U.S. troops returned to the desert to clean their weapons and prepare for their next mission.
"That was cool, even though they didn't have anything big that could [hurt] us," said Ivings, the gunner. "It was like we walked into their living room and said, 'Bring it on!"'