DIWANIYA, Iraq — The aftermath of the firefight was a tableau of twisted Iraqi corpses, tins of unopened food and the dirty mattresses where they had spent their final hours.
But the Iraqi private with a bullet wound in the back of his head suggested something unusually grim. Up and down the 200-mile stretch of desert where the American and British forces have advanced, one Iraqi prisoner after another has told a similar tale: that many Iraqi soldiers were fighting at gunpoint, threatened with death by hard-core loyalists of President Saddam Hussein.
Here, according to American doctors and Iraqi prisoners, appeared to be the confirmation. The wounded Iraqi, whose life was ebbing away outside an American field hospital, had been shot during the firefight Tuesday night with American troops.
It was a small-caliber bullet, most likely from a pistol, fired at close range. Iraqi prisoners taken after the battle said their officers had been firing at them, pushing them into battle.
"The officers threatened to shoot us unless we fought," said a wounded Iraqi from his bed in the American field hospital here. "They took out their guns and pointed them and told us to fight."
"We think he was shot by his own," said Dr. Wade Wilde, a Marine surgeon. "If he had been hit by an M-16, it would have taken his whole head off. It seems like it was an Iraqi gun."
The American Marines making their way up the Baghdad Highway through central Iraq have come under attack at least three times in the past 24 hours. Two of those attacks, including the ones where the Iraqi soldiers claimed to have been shot by their own, followed a similar pattern.
The Iraqis waited for the American tanks and other armored vehicles to pass, then opened fire, as if hoping to hurt the American force but unable to match its heavier weapons.
Twice on Tuesday, the Americans came under fire this way. The first attack came before dawn, when a convoy of Marines came under fire from Iraqi irregulars. The details were sketchy, but American officers said they had taken several Iraqi militiamen prisoner, killed several of the Iraqis and lost none of their own. On the road north, the only sign of the encounter was a pool of blood on the side of the road.
Hours later, during a swirling sandstorm, the American convoy again came under attack. A force thought to number about 150 Iraqis was waiting in trenches about 100 yards off the highway. This fight proved more deadly: An American Marine was killed and another wounded, along with at least a dozen Iraqis killed.