SALMAN PAK, Iraq – A Marine battalion rolled into a Tigris River town and destroyed a Republican Guard headquarters, seized one of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's palaces and attacked a suspected terrorist training camp.
Tanks with the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines launched a fiery attack late Saturday and early Sunday on Salman Pak, a small town about 20 miles southeast of Baghdad, which military officials said contained a suspected weapons of mass destruction site dating back to 1991.
Backed by coalition airstrikes, Marines in night-vision goggles used tank guns, 50-caliber rounds, machine-gun launched grenades and missiles to hit Iraqi tanks, armored personnel carriers and military installations.
Iraqis fired missiles at the planes, but apparently not one bullet was fired at the Marines on the ground, Lt. Col. Michael Belcher said. Before the battle, Marines had estimated there were between 500 and 2,000 Iraqi soldiers in the town. Iraqi fighters had shot at a scouting unit moving through the area earlier in the day.
Marines moving through the town early Sunday found abandoned trenches, reinforced with sandbags, and empty sandbag nests on rooftops.
"I think they scurried like a bunch of roaches," said Gunnery Sgt. Sandor Vegh, 34, of Circleville, Ohio, referring to the Republican Guard fighters they believed were defending the town.
It was unclear what the Marines found at the training camp, which contains an airstrip the Bush administration says Iraq used to offer terrorist training to Islamic militants. Few details were available about the sites targeted in the raid.
Attacking F-18s destroyed three Iraqi tanks, two armored personnel carriers and one anti-aircraft artillery piece. Infantry destroyed two trucks, one artillery piece and killed at least 13 Iraqi soldiers.
"There were so many secondary explosions, I think we hit an ammo dump," Belcher said.
One Iraqi truck hit by 50-caliber rounds burst into flames, lighting the night sky with an orange glow. It continued exploding for several minutes.
The violent blasts kicked up dust and singed the air with the smell of burning molasses. One building that was hit burst into a huge fireball, and blasts continued to emanate from it for the next 20 minutes, sounding like a massive firefight. The flames shot 50 feet into the sky.