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Firefights Erupt in Fallouja

A Marine and civilians are killed in division's first major conflict since its return to Iraq.

March 27, 2004|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

FALLOUJA, Iraq — U.S. Marines on Friday engaged in their first major military confrontation since returning to Iraq, as a daylong series of firefights left one Marine and 18 to 20 insurgents and others dead, according to military and hospital officials.

At least five of the dead were civilians, including an 11-year-old boy and an ABC television network cameraman.

Twenty-five Iraqis and three Marines were injured, the officials said, in the gunfire that took place during an intensive operation by the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, based at Camp Pendleton. The operation, which included armed searches and roadblocks, began several days ago, residents said, but burst into public view Friday.

By late morning, all major roads into Fallouja were blocked by the Marines. Light armored vehicles and Humvees were positioned around the sprawling neighborhood where the fighting took place.

The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force released few details, but Marine officials said this morning that fighting had been centered around a freeway exit and a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city.

They said no tanks or heavy artillery were used.

The Marines said they believed at least one group of 12 to 36 men was fighting them, in contrast to smaller groups usually seen since the end of major combat.

"Those who seek to impede the freedom, prosperity and progress of the Al Anbar residents are being physically challenged. Among those, some have chosen to fight. Having elected their fate, they are being engaged and destroyed," said a Marine statement issued Friday.

The circumstances in which the Marine and the civilians were shot were not entirely clear.

The Marines appeared to be on high alert at sunset Friday. Troops lay flat on the ground, guns poised, at the edge of the highway skirting the beleaguered neighborhood.

Streets were empty in much of this Euphrates River town as people avoided the area of the deadly crossfire.

The violent confrontation seemed certain to test the credibility among Iraqis of the Marines' motto for their second tour of duty in Iraq, which officially began last week: "First Do No Harm."

It appeared instead that the Marines, like the U.S. Army units that served here before them, were being drawn into a cycle of violence. Insurgents attack the U.S. military; the military responds with overwhelming firepower; and revenge-seeking relatives of wounded or slain civilians become more sympathetic to the insurgents.

Fallouja residents said the American show of force would backfire.

"Two days ago it was like a battlefield here," said an Iraqi traffic policeman who declined to give his name as he directed cars around the many roadblocks. "But today I hear our Iraqi guys have taken their revenge."

Some bystanders said the Marines did not yet understand the culture of Fallouja and nearby river towns. The area is deeply tribal, its close knit population as much rural as urban, making it an easy place for insurgents, many from the local community, to find safe haven.

There is also a growing current of radical Sunni Islam and an almost reflexive hatred of Westerners. City walls are covered with graffiti that say it is "halal," or lawful, to kill Americans.

The western end of the so-called Sunni Triangle area, which includes Fallouja, Ramadi and Khaldiya, has proved difficult for the Americans to control for more than short periods. Local police, who are often viewed as collaborators of the U.S.-led occupation, also have had trouble maintaining order.

Earlier in the week, insurgents ambushed newly arrived Marines near here and a Marine patrol was ambushed outside Ramadi on Thursday night. In the brief Ramadi firefight, three Marines were wounded and four insurgents were killed.

A Marine was killed near here Thursday by a roadside bomb, and two were injured.

"The new American troops who replaced the former ones do not know how to deal and behave with the people here," said Mohammed Tawfik, 35, a teacher. "They are always provoking the people, blocking the streets, detaining the civilians, under the pretext of searching for weaponry and insurgents.

"If they continue to behave like this, the response of the people will be more tough."

At the Fallouja hospital, the tension was palpable. Emergency room doctor Thamer Adnan said that many of the people he treated "were passengers in cars who said they were just passing by when they were shot."

Adnan counted five deaths, but other reports suggested there might have been as many as eight. It is not clear whether the victims were all taken to the same hospital.

An ambulance driver said his efforts to reach victims was hampered by U.S. troops, who stopped him even though he had proper credentials, then searched him and his vehicle before letting him move forward. "By then it was too late," he said.

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