April 14, 2004
Marines in Falluja Still Face and Return Relentless Fire
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
FALLUJA, Iraq, April 13 — Capt. Shannon Johnson scampered across a rooftop on Tuesday, pinned himself against a low brick wall, and slowly, inch by inch, raised his head to take a peek.
The streets below were a collage of ruin. A few dead dogs baked under the sun. So did a few dead bodies. One man had a beard of black flies on his face.
"Watch it, sir," whispered one of Captain Johnson's men, lying on his belly. "We've been taking fire from that direction."
Suddenly, a mortar whizzed overhead. It sailed so close you could hear its fins slice through the air. It ripped open less than 50 feet away, spraying shrapnel into a water tank and shredding it into a sprinkler.
"Wow!" Captain Johnson yelled out. "That was close!"
So much for the cease-fire in Falluja. It has been four days since American commanders declared a "temporary cessation of offensive operations," but in the heart of the Iraqi resistance, that does not seem to matter. Marines still occupy large swaths of the city. Insurgents still relentlessly attack them.
Most moments, Falluja is quiet — too quiet. There is no blare from mosques, no children playing soccer on the streets and no stores or restaurants open. The water and power have been shut off. The city is under a tight curfew. In some neighborhoods, the only signs of life are small pairs of dirty feet at the bottom of front gates and watchful little eyes peering out.
But in an instant, the city bursts into a fully engulfed combat zone. Both sides, marines and insurgents, drop behind dusty brick walls and unload whatever they have — mortars, rockets, machine guns, rocket propelled grenades — at each other. On Tuesday night, insurgents rushed a marine compound on the outskirts of the city. They came within one city block. The marines drove them back with an endless stream of tracer bullets that cut ruby red arcs across the sky. Sometimes the gunfire was so long and steady it sounded like rain.
"It's getting heinous out there," Joe Richey, a 29-year-old medical corpsman, said as he ducked into a shelter on Tuesday night.
Earlier that day, masked insurgents dashed through the streets. One even did a somersault to avoid being shot.
"Just missed him," Kristopher Williams, a 20-year-old Marine sniper perched on a roof, said after he squeezed off a shot. "Kind of crafty move."
On Tuesday, Marine commanders said at least three insurgents had been killed. Two suspects were captured. As of Tuesday night, there was no word on Marine casualties.
While all this was going on, negotiators inside this beleaguered city of 300,000 and in Baghdad tried to hammer out a peace deal for Falluja. Members of the Iraqi Governing Council have been meeting with local sheiks and American officials, trying to find a way to end the violence.
On the ground, that meant little.
"I've seen no difference over the past few days," said Lt. Col. Brian Baggott of the Marines. "This enemy hasn't changed. I guess nobody told them about the cease-fire."
Marines stormed into Falluja, 35 miles west of Baghdad, last week in response to an attack on four American security consultants; they were shot in an ambush in the city, and then their bodies were dragged through the streets by a mob.
The mission was to root out the insurgents behind the attack. More than 2,000 marines took part in the assault, punching into the city from every direction. Falluja has long been a hotbed of resistance, a predominantly Sunni Muslim city closely tied to Saddam Hussein.
One of the Marine battalions involved was the Third Battalion, Fourth Marine Regiment, based out of Twentynine Palms, Calif. The battalion, nicknamed Darkside, was called in from western Iraq at a moment's notice. It was the same combat-seasoned group that fought last year at the beginning of the war and helped create one of the conflict's more enduring images when they ripped down a statue of Mr. Hussein with one of their machines.
On Saturday, the men of Darkside fought house to house in Falluja, quickly clearing city blocks. They killed 12 insurgents. They captured many more.
"We were cruising," said Maj. Andrew Petrucci, the battalion's executive officer. "We had tons of momentum."
But the battalion, along with the other marines in the city, abruptly got the call to halt that day. Their orders were to stop offensive operations, which include patrols. They are allowed to shoot at anyone with a gun. And they have orders to shoot any male of military age on the streets after dark, armed or not. But the marines are not allowed to pursue insurgents through Falluja's densely packed neighborhoods or to seize any more of the city.
Many marines said it was like snatching a bone from a dog, midmeal.
"Marines like to be on the offensive," said Staff Sgt. Steve Marcil. "We're not like the Army. Our job is to move."
The marines are not moving anywhere right now. Many are squatting in Iraqi homes they have cleared, oiling their weapons on Oriental carpets sprinkled with glass. Many Falluja families hastily left the city right before the siege began. In one vacated house, a group of exhausted marines lay on a poster of Mecca.
Meanwhile, the resistance seems as dogged as ever.
On Sunday, a Marine tank fired 18 rounds into a house a suspected insurgent was firing from, said Jeremiah Day, a combat engineer from Minnetonka, Minn.
"And afterwards the guy was still standing," Corporal Day said. "It was like Scarface or something."
That same day, Brent Bourgeois, a 20-year-old lance corporal from Kenner, La., said he had seen an American helicopter fire a missile at a man with a slingshot.
"Crazy, huh?" the corporal said.
Falluja is now a strange replay of the war. Even with the cease-fire, the action here is the heaviest fighting since the Hussein government fell a year ago.
"It's the fight that never came last year," Major Petrucci said. "I guess these guys didn't really want to die for Saddam. But all this anti-American feeling is now uniting them."
Colonel Baggott said the insurgents were increasingly well organized. But when asked if he knew who the insurgents were, which groups or alliances, he paused for a moment.
"We don't," he said.
Many of the marines staring over the low brick walls expect the peace talks to falter and the siege to resume.
"If it's all about the diplomatic process," said Lt. Don Bergin, his face a mix of dust and sweat, "you're looking at the end of the diplomatic process."
http://www.nytimes.com/2004/04/14/international/middleeast/14FALL.html?hpThe American Marine Division has the highest combat effectiveness in the American armed forces. It seems not enough for our four divisions to surround and annihilate its two regiments.
---Mao Tse Sung to General Song, prior to Chosin Reservoir