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The Conflict in Iraq

Fallouja's Battle Won, but Fighting Continues

The Marine-led force, with its overwhelming firepower, has taken the city. But the final stretches have been the most bitterly contested.

November 17, 2004|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

FALLOUJA, Iraq — Inside the house, the fighters huddled together, chanting to God.

Outside, the Marines wondered how to kill them.

"These guys don't die easy," said Lance. Cpl. Marquel Curtis, as he crouched in a foxhole Tuesday, watching from a safe distance as grenade rounds and heavy machine-gun fire raked the home where the fighters were holed up.

The offensive to drive insurgents from Fallouja is largely won. Marines, with their overwhelming firepower, have gained overall control of what had been a rebel enclave.

But the fighting continues, especially in the city's southern precincts, where hard-core insurgents -- including many believed to be from other Arab and Muslim lands -- remain dug in, some using crude bunkers and tunnels as cover. Young men in dark sweatpants and sneakers, what passes for an insurgent uniform, are making a desperate stand in these bunkers and abandoned homes bypassed by the Marines as they swooped south.

With the battlefield shrunk, the final stretches have become the most bitterly contested.

Marines from Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Regiment, have pushed to the city's southern edge, where half-constructed brick houses give way to the jagged desert and nearby canals siphon water from the Euphrates to nourish fields of okra.

Arriving there from downtown, two miles to the north, is a journey through a panorama of devastation and rubble: blasted homes, smashed shops, bombed-out mosques. Hardly a pane of glass in Fallouja appears to have survived the American-led onslaught. Tanks and other U.S. armored vehicles are posted at most intersections along the main north-south supply route. A few terrified civilians peer from side streets as U.S. jets buzz overhead.

Smoke rises from buildings here and there, the aftermath of now-dwindling U.S. airstrikes. Periodic detonations rattle the street. Machine-gun fire echoes in the distance. But the level of fire has dropped dramatically in recent days.

"We're at the edge of town," announced Cpl. Cory Hixon, 21, seated at the house occupied by Alpha Company.

Marines on a break lounged inside and on the patio and munched on Meals Ready to Eat. These men fought their way down from the north on foot and were exhausted.

The night before, a squad of guerrillas had tried to infiltrate the Marine stronghold from the south, where, Marines said, many fighters had fled, dispersing into neighboring farming hamlets. The bodies of five were in a crevice in the desert, one with $700 in U.S. cash and 200 euros in his pocket. Marines found Syrian identification on several slain guerrillas here.

Having seized Fallouja, Marines have begun a laborious task of backtracking, clearing houses and other structures one by one.

On Monday, a Marine was shot and killed by a sniper perched in a nearby minaret. Most likely, the sniper had waited until the Marines had passed by for a clear shot.

"There are pockets of resistance everywhere," said Staff Sgt. Timothy Oberst, 31, preparing to lead an afternoon patrol. The younger Marines were confident they could clear out the remaining insurgents, but a senior officer was less sanguine.

"We'll never get them all," said the officer, asking to not be named. "They're everywhere."

The patrol kicked off midafternoon under cloudy skies. A squad of Marines gathered around 2nd Lt. Doug Bahrns, commander of Alpha Company's 3rd Platoon.

"Some civilians are starting to come back to their homes," Bahrns advised his squad. "Don't be surprised if you see them."

The troops spread out, headed toward homes near the Alpha Company compound. U.S. airstrikes have hammered this area in recent weeks, viewing it as a command-and-control center for the forces of Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab Zarqawi, who remains at large.

The houses yielded what is standard fare in Fallouja: rocket tubes, mortar shells, rocket-propelled-grenade launchers, an optical guidance system for missiles. Around the corner, two dead insurgents lay face up in a courtyard. Both appeared to be in their early 20s. They had opened fire on U.S. forces the day before, Marines said, and the troops had responded with grenade rounds. On Tuesday, a Marine removed grenades from the cartridge belts strung across the fighters' bodies.

"What a waste of life," 1st Lt. John Flanigan said.

Around the corner, Marines cautiously broke down several doors. Some houses are known to be booby-trapped. The day before, a Marine was shot dead entering a nearby building. Insurgents inside grabbed his machine gun and kept firing.

Later, after Marines subdued the attackers, the bodies of five insurgents were found inside. One appeared no more than 12 years old; he was probably with his father, believed to be one of the older men killed at the scene.

"We should be passing out candy to kids here, not shooting at them," Cpl. Hixon said. "But this guy sent his kid out to fight. We didn't know how old he was."

Just then, shouts were heard in a nearby house and a blast shook the building.

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