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In pockets of Fallujah, US troops still face harsh battles

In Fallujah, just four insurgents tied down a Marine company for hours in a nighttime battle.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 26, 2004


The four insurgents were heavily outnumbered and outgunned by US marines in Fallujah.

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But armed with just assault rifles and grenades, the quartet locked an entire company in intense battle for hours, inflicting casualties in hand-to-hand combat and delivering a tough lesson for US forces as they deepen their hunt for an ephemeral and patient enemy that embraces martyrdom.

The climax of the firefight late Monday night could not have been more chaotic or more illuminating of the horrors of urban conflict.

When the team from Alpha Company finally entered the last redoubt of the insurgents - a burning house that had already been hammered by rockets, explosive charges, and tank rounds - they had every reason to believe any remaining gunmen were dead.

Instead, point man Lance Corp. Richard Caseras entered with his team and ran into the spray of an insurgent's AK-47 assault rifle. A second fighter then emerged, a pineapple grenade in each hand, with pins already pulled.

Eyeball to eyeball with their opponents, the marines shot them both dead; the grenades fell to the ground and exploded, blasting the Americans with shrapnel.

The result was a panicked war scene that could have been drawn from the film "Apocalypse Now." In the eerie light of the roaring flames, the wounded men were dragged back out to the street while marines targeted the house with steady gunfire.

US commanders say that such costly battles are taking place across Fallujah, where US Marine and Army units launched an assault more than two weeks ago in a bid to cut off the lethal insurgency that has spread across Iraq.

But the battle Monday, fought amid the maze of houses and alleyways in this ghost city that once held a population of 300,000, shows the difficult and dangerous task of uprooting insurgents who have hunkered down. Protecting civilians may also prove a daunting task as marines try to locate fighters who filter quietly back in as residents return.

"You are seeing individuals willing to die, and take as many Americans and Iraqis with them," says Marine Maj. Gen. Richard F. Natonski, 1st Marine Division commander in an interview. "We overwhelm them, but despite that, they put up a very stiff and determined resistance. This [assault] had to be done, because Fallujah was a sanctuary for insurgents, and now it isn't."

As the shooting lit the battlespace with muzzle flashes and noise, a lone US Navy medical corpsman jumped out to gather the wounded. This correspondent moved to help, joining in to pull the three injured men into the vehicle by their flak jackets.

"I'm so sorry! I should have used the frag[mentation] grenade, and not my M-16 [rifle]," Lance Corporal Caseras yelled to his fallen comrades as the vehicle raced toward a combat hospital at Camp Fallujah. Lance Corp. Nathan Douglass was peppered with shrapnel. Also prone in the back of the armored vehicle, on crates full of ammunition and explosives, lay Corp. Catcher Cuts the Rope (his native American name), with a tourniquet above his knee; grenade shards hit his shoulder and hands.

"Don't worry," Corporal Douglass, from Hillsboro, Ore., said consolingly. "We shot so much into that house. There shouldn't have been anybody left."

The final blow came with heavy fire from a Spectre AC-130 gunship, which destroyed four houses used by the insurgents with 40 Howitzer shells.

The toll from a brutal night: One dead marine and nine wounded, including this correspondent, who was struck in the arm by a small piece of shrapnel.

The firefight brings the casualty rate in the Light Armored Reconnaissance (LAR) company to 1 man in 5; far less than the 60 percent reached during the battle for Vietnam's Hue City in 1968, the last urban assault before Fallujah waged by US Marines - but far higher than most modern combat operations.

The morning after the battle, as marines returned to the site to further clear the houses, two very young boys emerged from a house across the street, waving in a friendly way at the marines. They were followed by a woman in a black shroud and an older man. A cardboard sign on the wall, invisible during the firefight the night before, read: "There is family."

After granting civilians four hours each day to visit local food-distribution centers, commanders Wednesday extended the curfew to 24 hours a day. A jobs program was put on hold; it is not clear when civilians will be allowed to return.

And insurgents are still being found. On Tuesday, an LAR patrol uncovered five foreign men, suspected of being insurgents, hiding in a house. They had wounds, $1,100 in crisp hundred-dollar bills, and false identification papers.

"It's a man-on-man fight, a classic infantry battle," says marine Col. Craig Tucker, commander of the Regimental Combat Team-7, one of two regiments fighting in Fallujah.