US forces launched an all-out assault on Fallujah Monday night that US and Iraqi officials hope will turn the tide against Iraq's ferocious insurgency.
But the fight - which could bring the most extensive urban combat by US Marines and Army units since Vietnam - promises to be tough.
Before sunset, tank gunners blasted northern avenues of Fallujah after reporting insurgent defensive positions and spotting explosive tripwires stretched across roads. Marine infantry maneuvered behind tanks and armored vehicles, on plains thick with talcum-powder dust, as they prepared to breach the city limits.
Once darkness fell around the blacked-out city, Operation Phantom Fury got under way. US forces laid down a smoke wall in the city's northeast sector to provide cover for advancing troops. Artillery and tracer rounds lit up the sky as vehicles advanced with the aid of infrared strobe lights, visible only with night vision goggles.
The assaulting forces expect an array of booby traps, car bombs, and explosives - all of them asymmetric threats from 3,000 rebels, against the US and Iraqi conventional force strength of some 10,000 - designed by insurgents to take a lethal toll.
"They're seeing wires strung up between houses - even the first houses," says Sgt. Kevin Boyd, chief scout of the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance (LAR) company, after hearing the news on his helmet radio set. "They are not [car bombs]. They are house bombs."
"This is not going to be easy," replied Cpl. Christopher DeBlanc, a scout team leader of Raider platoon, from Spotsylvania, Va.
"No, it's not," agreed Sergeant Boyd, from Pittsburgh.
Most of Fallujah's 300,000 people have left the city in anticipation of the US assault, which is aimed at disrupting the network of the Al Qaeda affiliate, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
In an initial foray earlier Monday, US troops penetrated the western outskirts of the city, capturing a hospital and two bridges over the Euphrates River. Four foreigners, including two Moroccans and two unidentified people, were captured at the hospital.
For the main assault - just beginning at press time - the Monitor has been embedded with Raider One, a rare Marine armored vehicle configuration of six dismount scouts, a US Navy medical corpsman, a vehicle commander, his deputy, and a driver.
The LAR company is attached to the 1st Battalion 3rd Marines, one of six battalions that make up the Fallujah invasion force. The marines expect to face ruthlessness from an insurgency infamous for hostage-taking, videotaped murders, and frequent indiscriminate suicide attacks against civilians that have increasingly gripped Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
The marines also expect to deliver ruthlessness in return, though they have been drilled repeatedly on rules of engagement that require strict separation of fighters from civilians.
They call their vehicle "Trojan Horse"; the scouts' call sign is "Death Dealers." As they rolled into battle Monday, they strung up an olive-drab cravat showing skull and crossbones, superimposed upon a wooden cross.
"You know what this feels like? Christmas Eve," says Lance Cpl. Matt McClellan, a light machine gunner from Clayton, N.J., with a wry wit. "You wait for it all December, and you know it's coming up."
These marines are young, mostly in their early 20s, and carry pictures in their helmets and cargo pants of girlfriends or newly married wives. This company is experienced, and took part in the invasion of Iraq last year. Sergeant Boyd celebrated his 21st birthday by swimming in the Tigris River, one day after he helped, as point man of the walking scout team, capture Mr. Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.
"Game Day" Monday began with darkness and rainfall at 2 a.m., for the marines sleeping beside their vehicles on the lip of Fallujah.
"Of course, it has to rain before we attack," groans Lance Cpl. Cody Williams, the Raider One driver from Chandler, Ariz., as he balls up his sleeping bag and straps it to his pack, which hung off the armored vehicle.
"Now we know it's real," says Corporal Williams, wistfully. "We're wet and miserable."
"What's war without rain and mud?" chimed in Boyd, an Eagle Scout who fired his first BB gun when he was a Tiger Cub, at age 5, and still wasn't strong enough to pull back the pump action on the kid-size rifle.
The marines who will be doing the grunt work were by turns philosophical and funny, as they prepared Monday - apparently nonchalantly - for the urban battle. As dawn broke, the company slipped into points on the north side of town.
Raider carried enough demolition explosives, if all detonated at once, to produce a detectable seismic event. The quantity elicited jokes, every time someone lit a cigarette. There was also concern that all the predawn rain - which soaked backpacks and gear - was seeping into the explosive store. But Boyd assured his comrades it was tucked in his pack, safe and dry.
The rain also played havoc with the guns, which have been so heavily used that bluing no longer exists on some barrels.
"Look at my SAW [squad automatic weapon], it has turned a nice carrot color," laments Corporal McClellan. When the rain quit, all the marines set to cleaning, brushing, and oiling their rifles, with well-practiced hands.
While waiting for frontline companies to follow them toward the front line staging area, bored after hours, Raider One fell back on mirth. One especially persistent barking feral dog sparked a debate about whether it should be dispatched.
Even when the shelling of Fallujah picked up, and Raider One was tasked with security for the bulldozers creating a path for the marines advance into the city, the challenging days and nights ahead were put aside, if only to make them easier to cope with.
"If this is going to be my last day, I want one of these before I go," says Corporal DeBlanc, picking up a packet of French Vanilla Cappuccino mix, and grabbing a small carton of milk pilfered from the dining hall.
Just after mixing it in a tin canteen, Raider One revved up, and charged up a steep sand berm, closer to the city limits. DeBlanc, standing in the open back with the other scouts, barely kept the Cappuccino from spilling.
He then took a long draught, and passed it around until it was drained.
"Whew!" he said. "Back in the fight."