FALLUJAH, IRAQ — Block by block, street by street, US Marines and Army troops Tuesday began seizing control of Fallujah, making unexpected gains against limited resistance, despite some chaotic delays entering the city.
Despite the steady rumble of fighting, from frequent artillery and rocket explosions, to bursts of small arms fire across the city, US forces entered a veritable ghost town.
The main assault came Monday evening from six battalions arrayed at separate points along the northern edge of the city. Those from the northeast made swift headway, while resistance was much heavier in the northwestern Jolan district.
A quicker-than-expected capture of Fallujah would advance the US objectives of denying the rebels one of their bases of operation and pacifying the city ahead of January elections.
Elsewhere in Iraq, insurgents stepped up attacks, killing some 60 people since Monday night. An Al Qaeda-linked group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed to have killed more than 45 policemen at three police stations in Baquba.
By nightfall in Fallujah, the Associated Press reported three US soldiers killed Tuesday; insurgent and civilian casualty figures remain unknown.
The 1st Battalion 3rd Marines, pushed all the way to the main east-west road that bisects Fallujah - a line that commanders thought might take four days to reach.
"So we made it," says a surprised Carlos Cabezasrojas, a sweating lance corporal from Secaucus, N.J., as his Bravo Company launched its final attack of the day. "I got my confirmed kill, too."
That "kill" came as Bravo Company pushed south. He spotted two men who fired rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and then tried to bury an explosive device.
"I got the first one," says Corporal Cabezasrojas, kneeling with his M-16 rifle at the edge of the farthest point of advance. "The whole squad got the second."
The relative ease of advance Tuesday contrasted sharply with the barrages that met US forces when they breached the city limits overnight Monday.
The northeast sector penetrated by the 1-3 Marines yielded more stray dogs than armed insurgents. But bold incidents throughout the day underscore that the 3,000 insurgents here are not a spent force.
Expecting and finding countless explosive devices and booby traps, American units took few chances as they moved methodically through the city. Every vehicle is treated as a potential car bomb; every person a possible enemy.
Approval even came over the radio net to shoot dogs, with shotguns, to prevent them from being rigged with explosives.
Bravo's final attack of the day - mounted jointly with vehicles of the light armored reconnaissance (LAR) company - showed how Fallujah is being claimed on the ground by overwhelming firepower.
Capt. Gil Juarez, the LAR company commander, began the assault by blasting his 25mm turret gun down a street toward the target house. Teams also fired small mortars. "You want me to fire one more volley?" Captain Juarez asked a Bravo Company officer. "Please, sir, if you would."
As scores of infantry troops began walking down the street, the armored vehicles moved ahead, aiming their guns down each side street, and blasting any car in sight. Rebels have claimed to have rigged more than 100 car bombs for US troops.
Doors along the way were blown open. At least one car fired upon burst into flames. Troops detonated numerous improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
But the real threat remains insurgents who kept a low profile, but almost certainly have not disappeared. On foot with LAR's Raider platoon, this correspondent saw the corpses of only three insurgents, one of whom had a long beard and a harness full of magazine clips, indicating that he was an Islamist fighter, possibly foreign.
He and another had died just hours before, in a US mortar attack that landed at what appeared to be the gate of their house.
The Raider Scouts Tuesday claimed at least one kill. Sgt. Kevin Boyd, the chief scout from Pittsburgh, led the firing on an armed man who popped up on a balcony.
The close calls will be what worries US commanders, as Fallujah comes nominally under their control, even though they have hardly searched every house.
In one example, 1st Lt. Paul Webber, a LAR platoon commander, was sitting in his vehicle turret Tuesday, when a cleanshaven man wearing a white T-shirt and black sweat pants stepped out of the bushes 25 yards away, and hunkered down to fire an RPG at the vehicle.
"I saw him, and I was in shock, in awe," says Lieutenant Webber. Even as Webber fired, wounding the man in the leg, the attacked launched the rocket. "I felt the heat. He missed by just a few meters."
While the 1-3 Marines infantry moved quickly, they endured a rain-soaked, dangerous 13-hour ordeal getting into the city.
"No plan survives the line of departure," says Capt. Cameron Albin, the LAR deputy commander from Austin, Texas.
And indeed the breach plan did not. The 1-3 Marines were supposed to blow a path across train tracks, but they are well-built and didn't break the first time. Then an armored bulldozer got stuck in the breach, even as marines began to target nearby houses, lighting up the night sky with artillery blasts and air strikes.
With no radio and poor night-vision goggles, the backup bulldozer couldn't find the breach. The Raider Scouts were tasked to find it, and guide it to the breach. Twice they had to dismount, under heavy fire, and climb on to the bulldozer.
"He finally stopped when I flashed him in the eyes 20 times," says Lance Cpl. Jason Canellis, from Vandera, Texas, who raced to the dozer under a pounding attack. "He had no idea where to go."
The delay meant that several vehicles came together near the breach point. Insurgents took advantage, launching three mortars, wounding four as they struck two tanks and an armored troop carrier just 40 yards from Raider.
The scouts dropped below the rim of their vehicle as one then whooped with excitement and joined the firefight.
"That machine gun was quick - those bullets were coming in fast," says Cpl. Christopher DeBlanc, from Spotsylvania, Va.
"They were a lot more accurate than they were the last time we were here," says Lance Cpl. Matt McClellan, from Clayton, N.J., about the unit's first tour in Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein.