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Marines enter trip-wired Fallujah

Billed as the biggest urban fight since Vietnam, US forces launched a major assault at nightfall.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 9, 2004


US forces launched an all-out assault on Fallujah Monday night that US and Iraqi officials hope will turn the tide against Iraq's ferocious insurgency.

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But the fight - which could bring the most extensive urban combat by US Marines and Army units since Vietnam - promises to be tough.

Before sunset, tank gunners blasted northern avenues of Fallujah after reporting insurgent defensive positions and spotting explosive tripwires stretched across roads. Marine infantry maneuvered behind tanks and armored vehicles, on plains thick with talcum-powder dust, as they prepared to breach the city limits.

Once darkness fell around the blacked-out city, Operation Phantom Fury got under way. US forces laid down a smoke wall in the city's northeast sector to provide cover for advancing troops. Artillery and tracer rounds lit up the sky as vehicles advanced with the aid of infrared strobe lights, visible only with night vision goggles.

The assaulting forces expect an array of booby traps, car bombs, and explosives - all of them asymmetric threats from 3,000 rebels, against the US and Iraqi conventional force strength of some 10,000 - designed by insurgents to take a lethal toll.

"They're seeing wires strung up between houses - even the first houses," says Sgt. Kevin Boyd, chief scout of the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance (LAR) company, after hearing the news on his helmet radio set. "They are not [car bombs]. They are house bombs."

"This is not going to be easy," replied Cpl. Christopher DeBlanc, a scout team leader of Raider platoon, from Spotsylvania, Va.

"No, it's not," agreed Sergeant Boyd, from Pittsburgh.

Most of Fallujah's 300,000 people have left the city in anticipation of the US assault, which is aimed at disrupting the network of the Al Qaeda affiliate, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

In an initial foray earlier Monday, US troops penetrated the western outskirts of the city, capturing a hospital and two bridges over the Euphrates River. Four foreigners, including two Moroccans and two unidentified people, were captured at the hospital.

For the main assault - just beginning at press time - the Monitor has been embedded with Raider One, a rare Marine armored vehicle configuration of six dismount scouts, a US Navy medical corpsman, a vehicle commander, his deputy, and a driver.

The LAR company is attached to the 1st Battalion 3rd Marines, one of six battalions that make up the Fallujah invasion force. The marines expect to face ruthlessness from an insurgency infamous for hostage-taking, videotaped murders, and frequent indiscriminate suicide attacks against civilians that have increasingly gripped Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The marines also expect to deliver ruthlessness in return, though they have been drilled repeatedly on rules of engagement that require strict separation of fighters from civilians.

Feels like 'Christmas Eve'

They call their vehicle "Trojan Horse"; the scouts' call sign is "Death Dealers." As they rolled into battle Monday, they strung up an olive-drab cravat showing skull and crossbones, superimposed upon a wooden cross.