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.
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"If you've got a guy sitting in a house with two grenades, who knows he is going to die, we're going to root these guys out, house by house," says Colonel Tucker. "[But] you can't go into every house and knock it down, It's the difference between an organization that follows the rules of war, and one that does not. The challenge for us, is not becoming them."Skip to next paragraph
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Such guerrilla tactics, which in the past week have included using a white surrender flag as a cover for attack, or playing dead on the street before jumping up to fire - have kept these marines on edge.
But even as US units apply overwhelming force, they are at risk from the asymmetrical threat posed by rebels - and the presence of civilians.
"I'm telling you marines, you have the authority to use lethal force," Captain Gil Juarez, the LAR commander, told his platoon chiefs when giving the order for Monday's operation. "But be advised: If you make a mistake and frag innocent civilians, there is going to be a [military lawyer] on the scene, and an investigation."
"We'll win the battle, no problem," Captain Juarez continued. "But this is still a war about human relations. This is political war. Everything we do must help toward winning that war."
A clear example of the tricky balance is Monday's battle, which started out as a typical clearing operation, in which LAR vehicles and on-foot scout teams pushed east to west between two clocks, clearing house after house.
Red Platoon began in typical fashion, with a reading the 91st Psalm from the Bible.
"Thou shalt not be afraid of the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness," read Corporal Dustin Barker of Midland, Texas. Citations from the Bible mark his helmet strap.
The marines used explosives, axes, and even their boots to break down doors and storm houses.
They searched rooms and destroyed food stores when they found them to deprive insurgents moving from house to house of support.
"The problem with this, is we are opening [by breaking locks] the whole town up for terrorists to move in," said an intelligence officer with the unit.
In one house, Red platoon found two men sitting around a heater, drinking tea. The kitchen was immaculate - except for a single bowl of beans and another of rice - and did not look as if it had been lived in for weeks. The phone's answering machine had received 61 unanswered calls, up until Nov. 5.
The men knew their own names, but little else. They couldn't identify the couple in the marriage photo above the master bed, and said they had cut it out of a magazine. They were detained.
The first contact for Alpha Company came shortly after a block away.
One marine was shot when he entered a house, and later died on his way to the combat hospital. Corp. Luiz Munoz was also shot in the leg.
The shooting launched the battle. Also wounded was Corp. Peter Mason, a veteran, like this Alpha platoon, of a battle on Nov. 13 that left 15 guerrillas dead.
On that day, he was shot four times in his armor plates and once in the helmet. Eight more bullets put holes in his trousers, but missed his legs.
Even as Corporal Mason was treated for shrapnel wounds Monday, in the gathering twilight, marines shot a second insurgent on the roof.
Then they climbed to the next building to fire three rockets. Two more hours of nighttime combat passed when the fire team entered yet another house, and ran into the rifle fire and grenade carrier.
"I don't know how we can prevent that [in the future]. We did everything right," says Lieut. Matt Bronson, the platoon commander of the teams first into the house, from Barre, Mass. "They are just hoping we don't come into their house; they are waiting for civilians to come back."
"Once those Abrams [tanks] started shooting, I thought: 'If [the insurgents] are still alive, they are going to be very [angry]," Lance Corporal Donald Blais told his wounded platoon-mates, during a visit that night at the combat hospital.
"The living room was on fire when we went in. It still hasn't hit me yet," says Corporal Blais, his face was blackened from fire smoke and accumulated dirt of two weeks of war. He says he shot 15 magazines of ammunition that night - some 400 bullets.
"Every time I close my eyes, I see the house burn," says Blais, of Hartford, Conn. "I don't think I can sleep."
"I see the glowing of the fire," adds Douglass, a month shy of his 20th birthday, as he lay in his hospital cot.
"Then I see Cesares coming out, and the [insurgent] chasing him."