Thursday, April 10, was bargain day at the Greater Baghdad flea market–and a day for an American military engineer to admire the retreating Iraqi army's explosive demolition expertise.

The day after jubilant crowds downtown toppled statues of Saddam Hussein as American Army and Marine units looked on, people on the outskirts of the city celebrated the tyrant's fall by liberating anything that wasn't bolted down. As the looting went on, along the Route 6 approach to the city of 4.5 million over the Diyala River, military convoys navigated through the ebb and flow of ordinary Iraqis. The rule in the street was that if you can haul it away, it's yours.

Donkey carries mattresses, only one of many items "liberated" in and around Baghdad on April 10.

"The looting really started about two or three days ago," says SW2 Dennis Ryan, 27, of Branchville, N.J. "They're taking everything–even combines and tractors."

Ryan steers his Humvee around a slow-moving Bobcat in the right lane with two small boys smiling and waving from their front-row seats in the bucket. He and the other members of his crew–SW2 Daniel R. Crow, 26, Orange County, Calif., and CM2 Jeffrey Macke, 25, St. Louis–are part of the jump team for Task Force Mike, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Engineer Group (MEG). Mike is the MEG's forward-most mobile unit, responsible for tailing the advancing fighting force. Commanded by Capt. William L. Rudich, the unit's specialties include rapid road repairs and non-standard bridge installation.

The crew, attached to the 30th Naval Construction Regiment in Port Hueneme, Calif., has been in the area since last fall. "I haven't slept in a bed since November 18," says Ryan. "We've jumped so many times that I don't even bother to set up a tent any more. I just throw down my poncho liner and sleeping bag and that's it."

Lately there has been a lot of convoy duty,"so we get to see a bit of the country," says Macke, manning a roof-mounted .50-cal machine gun on a rotating turret from a sling seat.

JUMP TEAM (L-R) Crow, Ryan and Macke

On this day they're part of a convoy that transports Rear Admiral Chuck Kubic, the MEG commander, on an inspection of Diyala River crossings. The Iraqis dynamited two bridges as they retreated, in a vain attempt to slow the 1st Marine Division. After splashing a pontoon bridge beside the upriver span, Gen. James N. Mattis' forces advanced the eastern front into eastern Baghdad, while the Army was entering the city from the west.

Kubic, who can get short-tempered when stuck too long at his rear-guard command post, seems happiest when he is in the field reviewing conditions and tackling engineering and logistics problems. The Iraqis have finally provided a couple.

"Two nights ago the Iraqis blew two bridges. They're good engineers–they blew them where I would have, on the land side," he says. "Now we have to look at replacing the pontoon bridge and the medium girder bridge with Mabey-Johnsons. We have to look at possible repairs for the humanitarian aid portion of this operation."

The jump team meets the admiral's seven-man entourage as it steps from a C-130 that has landed at an airstrip south of Baghdad. Along Route 6 toward Baghdad, signs of recent fighting are much in evidence. Charred trucks and cars, some still smoking, lie on the shoulders or in the median. "The action got pretty hot around here about a week ago," says Crow, the Humvee's shotgun rider, who actually carries an M-16.

Defaced poster of the (former) Great Leader

Many people are going about their daily business as if nothing is unusual in this contentious part of the globe. Others, however, especially those among the more than 40% of the population that is under 15, seem genuinely pleased to see the Marines and Seabees. The kids flash V signs, give thumbs up or wave, grin and shout. "Bush great! Kill Saddam!" Pictures of the impotent strongman–and they are almost as common as streetlights–have been vandalized. Many kids are hawking the rough-cut tobacco scrapings that pass for cigarettes in Iraq, but because of a handful of suicide car-bombings in recent day, troops are under order to keep interaction to a minimum.

Before inspecting the first bridge, Kubic stops on the riverbank to take care of a bit of family business. He reaches into his pack, pulls out a manila envelope, and unfolds a poster from his nephew Jacob Brown. The youngster, a Cub Scout from Mars, Pa., suffers from cerebral palsy. Kubic summons Command Master Chief Kevin Timmons to pose with him for the obligatory battlefield memento, a snapshot of a couple of troops displaying the Star ‘n Stripes against a Baghdad backdrop.

Admiral Kubic and Command Master Chief Timmons pose with flag from Kubic's nephew.

As soon as the poster is squared away, it's back to business. Kubic inspects damage to major bridge crossing. A pedestrian lane is intact and there is a medium girder bridge enabling military vehicles and equipment to cross. A more permanent solution is needed.

At the undamaged end of the bridge farther from Baghdad, a crew from Gulfport, Miss.-based Navy Mobile Construction Battalion 74, a Seabee contingent under Rudich's command, has assembled a 60-m Mabey-Johnson bridge for spanning the gap. They have set the spreader beam on the far side of the hole, chocked the undercarriage and begun to "walk" the assembled trusswork forward with a tracked hydraulic excavator. The work, begun the morning before, would be finished by the end of the day, according to E6 Joseph Orpilla, who is posted on the Baghdad side as a guard.

Seabees launch Mabey-Johnson bridge from one end, while MEG team inspects damage at the other end. (below)

Kubic leads Lt. Jeff Lengkeek and Lt. Dave McAlister, a couple of his "Seabee Jedi" junior officer engineers on a detailed inspection of the bridge. The builders had cold-spliced precast concrete members to form 54-in.-deep deck beams that were post-tensioned with wire cable.

"We have another bridge downriver," says Rudich. "They blew a hole in the deck and we have a temporary medium girder bridge in place. My recommendation is to leave that bridge in place for the people to use while we are siting and constructing the Mabey-Johnson replacement."

After U.S. forces secured the bridge, they determined that retreating Iraqis had blasted the three-pile mid-river center pier about six ft above the water line, effectively removing a five-ft-deep precast concrete cap beam and the four-ft-thick bride deck. "We were working at these sites as the infantry was rolling through," says Chief Warrant Officer Bill Johnson. "It was some great Seabee work."

Kubic says later that his team will send pictures and measurements from the inspection back to the Pacific Division engineers in Honolulu for detailed design recommendations. Onsite, an underwater construction team will conduct soundings and provide intelligence for the best site for the Mabey-Johnson replacement bridge.

U.S. forces blew bridge piers after Iraqis holed through the deck.

After conferring with the Task Force Mike command about fuel and food supplies, Kubic and his team head back to the airfield, board the C-130 and head back to the MEG command in Kuwait. "We had a good day," he says later. "We got good information, had a chance to see first-hand what we're dealing with and now can make decisions about our next move."

The design solution, he explains, must meet the military needs but also help with the next phase of operations: humanitarian aid.


ENR Managing Senior Editor Andrew G. Wright is in Baghdad
with the Engineer Brigade of U.S. Army's Third Infantry