Rebels return to 'cleared' areas

In Fallujah, US forces are going through 50,000 houses one by one. But Iraqi insurgents are coming back.

The embers in the house were still hot from the fire of battle when Cpl. Joshua Richard went in to view the remains of the insurgents who killed a fellow US marine.

At the base of the stairs - the same dark place where Lance Cpl. Blake Magaoay of Pearl City, Hawaii, had fallen in a burst of rifle fire - Corporal Richard harangued the burnt Iraqi corpse."You got what you wanted, didn't you?" he sneered, referring to the Marine casualties.

The corporal's anger is not unusual among marines who for three weeks have been taking casulties among comrades, as they continue to face an up-close battle in Fallujah. The Pentagon now says US forces will see their tour of duty extended until after the Jan. 30 elections. While their fight is no longer a front-page story, the physical and mental toll is growing, as the marines here continue to hunt an enemy that rarely seeks them out. Instead, pockets of insurgents lie waiting until teams - like that led by Corporal Magaoay - come crashing through their door.

Magaoay's death brings the US fatality toll in November to at least 134, one short of the toll of the most lethal month to date for Americans in Iraq. Seventy-one US troops died retaking the rebel-held city, according to Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, the top Marine commander in Iraq. An additional 623 American troops were wounded in the most intense urban conflict for US forces since the Vietnam War.

Iraqi civilians are not expected to be permitted to begin returning to the badly damaged city until mid-December, and extensive damage to virtually every house and building across Fallujah means that detailed US and Iraqi government plans for rebuilding will take months, at least, to realize.

But the original problem persists: US forces sweep through one neighborhood after another, only to find insurgents popping up in "cleared" areas.

The battle Monday killed one marine and wounded three others - a high cost against three insurgents, who had moved into a house 50 feet across the street from a newly established marine position at a Fallujah fire station. That house and several others nearby had been cleared just two days earlier.

The ensuing fight revealed an enemy that has hardly given up and is making US forces learn the lesson of the warning taped up on the inside gate of the Marine fire station base: "Complacency kills."

"They are in survival mode, and they're just waiting until someone comes to them [to fight], rather than going out and initiating attacks," says Lt. Col. Dan Wilson, the deputy current operations officer for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in charge of western Iraq.

"We have to go through close to 50,000 structures in the town of Fallujah," Colonel Wilson says, "to make sure that when someone comes home [an insurgent] doesn't jump out from a hidden wall or a spider hole, kills them, and continues to operate from that house."

Marines are pursuing insurgent cells, and have picked up cell leaders who are "making mistakes" because they are "on the run," adds Wilson.

General Sattler says that at least 1,200 insurgents had been killed in the city. The amount of weaponry found so far in Fallujah confirms to marines that the city had been the nationwide hub of the Iraq's insurgency.

Catalogued so far, US intelligence officers say, are more than 4,500 mortar systems, 400 grenades, 800 rocket-propelled grenades, 800 land mines, and more than 260,000 rifles and small arms.

"You could issue one [Fallujah] rifle to every man in the United States Marine Corps, and still have a bunch left over," says Wilson.

Senior officers say attacks in the Fallujah area have dropped off 44 percent since the invasion of the city began.

A chemical workshop that appeared designed to boost the explosive power of roadside bombs has also been found.

The Fallujah assault "is not good for the families and marines who have suffered and died, putting their lives on the line for the freedom of Iraq. But it has been good in terms of dealing a blow to the insurgency," says Wilson.

That message hadn't gotten through to the three insurgents who killed Magaoay. The insurgents, armed with assault rifles and pineapple grenades, had set up one sleeping area on each floor. Upstairs, they blocked the window with a bedding material and created a small, dark cubbyhole. A book lay on one mattress on the floor.

The marines estimate the insurgents had been in the house less than 12 hours. A bar of soap in the bathroom was still wet with use, immediately after the firefight.

One burst from the rebel rifle - and the toss of a hand grenade heralded the start of battle. Lance Cpl. Chris Anderson, a Marine scout from Tucson, Ariz., watched the grenade roll before it exploded. Shrapnel struck his left hand and shoulder.

"They knew where to place themselves in that house," Lance Corporal Anderson said later at a combat hospital. Magaoay's fate was not immediately clear, so marines used nonlethal stun and flash-bang grenades to fight their way back into the house to find him. Another team was led, in a split-second decision when others hesitated to enter, by Lance Cpl. Edward Lonecke, from Manchester, Ga. He was shot in the thigh, the moment he stormed in from the kitchen door.

"I knew if we could get Magaoay [out], we could blast the place," Lance Corporal Lonecke said later, as he waited for an evacuation flight to Germany. Once the marines pulled out, the house was pummeled with rockets and 25mm explosive rounds.

It was after the flames died down, that Corporal Richard, of Lafayette, La., returned, took snapshots, cursed the dead insurgents, and spat on their corpses.

Upstairs, an intelligence officer gingerly picked through the pockets of the bodies for evidence. His fingers came to rest on a steel pin, and a familiar shape: a final surprise left for the Americans by the suicidal insurgent.

"Grenade!" shouted the officer, leaning over the corpse. The marines dashed for the doorway.

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