US troops move toward Fallujah

Insurgents and American forces clashed briefly Thursday near the city. A large US assault is expected.

Lightning may never strike the same place twice, but Iraqi insurgents do, along the endless reed-filled canals and dirt roads that surround Fallujah, in central Iraq.

US Marines of the Light Armored Reconnaissance (LAR) company on patrol Thursday near Fallujah, found a gap between canals. Already at the chokepoint, there was a crater - formed not long ago, when an armored vehicle had rolled through and blew up an antitank mine.

Suspicious because the crater forced the convoy along a very narrow dirt path, marines dismounted from the first armored vehicle and walked it through the breach unharmed.

The second vehicle, however, hit another antitank mine, blowing the 14-ton chassis into a muddy fishtail, tearing away a rear tire, and blasting open the armored rear doors, wounding two marines and an American photographer.

A US Navy medical corpsman riding in the next vehicle - from Raider platoon, where a Monitor correspondent was riding - was on the scene in seconds, pulling shocked casualties from a vehicle leaking diesel fuel.

The incident comes as US and Iraqi forces prepare for an offensive against insurgents in Fallujah, and shows how the unseen and unreadable resistance in Iraq continues to take a toll.

"It's a pretty good tactic, to force the vehicle to drive around the blast hole," says Corporal Christopher DeBlanc, a team leader from Spotsylvania, Va.

"There's nothing you can do," says 1st Lieut. Paul Webber, an LAR platoon commander, nodding toward the two craters. "Somebody's got to go through here, sometime. It was just a matter of time. They knew."

The tactic also is a prelude to what US forces are expecting in Fallujah, where insurgents and foreign Islamist militants are preparing sturdy defenses.

"There are berms, there is wire. They are there, and they are ready," says Lieutenant Webber. "They're not stupid - we killed all the stupid ones."

Early Thursday, US aircraft fired on several barricaded rebel positions in northeast and southeastern Fallujah, the military said. Later in the day, US artillery batteries fired two to three-dozen 155mm shells at insurgent bastions in the city, the military said.

Insurgents and US forces also clashed briefly Thursday in Ramadi, west of Fallujah, but there were no US casualties, the military added.

The fresh action followed overnight fighting on the southeastern outskirts of Fallujah after insurgents fired a rocket-propelled grenade at marines. Two insurgents were killed while no US casualties were reported, said Lt. Nathan Braden, of 1st Marine Division. Hospital officials in Fallujah reported three civilians were injured in the overnight shelling.

The new crater - 4 ft. deep, and 8 ft. wide in dark fertile farming soil - looked precisely like the first one. And there were other strange signs picked up by the marines as they piled boxes of explosives, rockets, and ammunition from the diesel soaked vehicle.

The blast destroyed the amphibious propeller and spread camouflage pack material across the waving reeds. A pile of burning ash included 25mm shell casings. Every one of those, now rusted, had been taken apart, and their primer taken by insurgents. The primer can act as a blasting cap for improved explosive devices, or IEDs.

The marines fanned out across the muddy fields, detaining two sheep herders and stopping a car that did not halt with machine gun fire. Another man emerged from the reeds with his hands up, claiming to be from Tikrit, with $400 in his pocket.

But the marines who remained at the blast site marveled at what they saw as their bad luck - this platoon had never been hit before - and at their relative good luck. No marines died; the wounds to the two marines were not life threatening; and Stephanie Kuykendal, an American freelance photographer for Corbis photo agency, only had wounds to her mouth.

Marines riding in light armor can be superstitious, and some travel with what they call "turret gods" - voodoo-looking dolls with feathers and beads hanging from their heads, picked up at their home base in Okinawa, Japan. The "gods" hang among photos of girlfriends and family, which are considered "guardian angels" in their own right.

But Thursday, before setting out on patrol, the marines of the vehicle that was hit had traced a cross on the back armored door.

The marine who was wounded wrote the words "Jesus Saves," in the dirt on the side of the vehicle.

"He does," affirmed a staff sergeant. "It worked. It could have been a lot worse."

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