Sunday, July 27, 2003

A flash shattered the darkness, and a bomb blew up in front of Sgt. 1st Class Mike Mizell's tank. Within seconds, a rocket-propelled grenade whistled overhead.

''Driver, stop! Gunner, reverse to the left!'' the 35-year-old tank commander from Orangeburg, S.C., shouted into his radio.

For commanders like Mizell, the attack along the dangerous Highway 1, dubbed ''Ambush Alley,'' wasn't unexpected. The goal on this patrol, like many others, was to bait the enemy into attacking armored infantry units and draw them away from more vulnerable targets.

''It's as dangerous as hell,'' 68th Armored's commander, Lt. Col. Aubrey Garner, 39, said. ''But soldiers are willing to put themselves in danger to kill the enemy.''

The gunners sprayed machinegun tracer fire toward a line of palm and eucalyptus trees where the attacker took cover to fire the grenade. Two Apache helicopter gunships clattered in to chase down anyone running away. The other pair of tanks in Mizell's patrol fired their machineguns toward the spot, guided by the initial tracer rounds. It was impossible to tell if any Iraqi fighters were killed or wounded.

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