FALLUJAH, Iraq — The streets were deserted, except for the dead.
“This is a frigging ghost town,” said Cpl. Steven Wolf, a squad leader with the CAAT (Combined Anti-Armor Team) Platoon.
On Tuesday, these Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment were ebullient; the American forces appeared to gain the upper hand quickly against the insurgency in Fallujah, the Iraqi city that has been home to a fierce anti-coalition resistance.
One joked that they’d all be sipping “pina coladas by the Euphrates River by fifteen-hundred.”
In Fallujah, the Marines are operating with liberal rules of engagement.
At first light, tanks and heavily armored Bradley Fighting Vehicles blasted cars and buses parked down side streets, in case they might be booby-trapped and packed with explosives.
“Everything to the west is weapons-free,” radioed Staff Sgt. Sam Mortimer of Seattle, Wash., which means the Marines can shoot whatever they see — it’s all considered hostile.
The Humvee passed by the body of a man in the center of the street. There was a hole through his left eye socket, evidence of a clean shot by a Marine sniper.
Down another side street was the body of a second man. This one was dressed in clean white sneakers and athletic pants. He was on his back, with his arms behind his head, his face appearing nearly peaceful, content. Not far from the body lay a Russian-made Dragonov sniper rifle. Loose rounds of ammunition spilled from the black vest strapped to his chest.
There was the occasional popgun crack of an AK-47 being fired. Usually just single rounds, so the shooter could avoid detection.
These “nuisances” were met with overwhelming firepower. The concussion from the main gun on an Abrams M1 tank is powerful enough to knock you off your feet at close range.
The deep “whoomps” flashing from their long muzzles echoed across the city, while Bradleys wound down their 25-millimeter cannons on suspicious targets.
Down every other alleyway a vehicle was engulfed in furious orange flames. Black smoke billowed from a building in the distance.
Marines ready to ‘get some’
Almost to a man, the 3.1 Marines have all lost friends in this protracted war of attrition.
They are eager “to get some” — payback for the car bombs and IEDs (improvised explosive devices) that have killed or maimed so many of their brother “Devil Dogs.”
These young Marines were full of bravado and easygoing about the danger that surrounds them. Some thumbed through Maxim magazine, others the Bible as they waited patiently to rain down death and destruction on their enemies.
“We’re going to let loose the dogs of war,” said Staff Sgt. Mortimer. “It will be hell,” he said with a smile.
This levity continued until the Marines turned the corner onto a main street they’d tactically dubbed “Elizabeth.”
Despite the constant weapons fire and explosions that accompanied the advance — this one was different — it was directed at the Marines.
Real battle begins
Suddenly, a rocket-propelled grenade exploded nearby. Slideshow: Violence in Iraq
One Marine’s face was burned by the powder and hot gas, another caught shrapnel in the leg and a third was shot in the finger by the small-arms fire that followed.
The Marines were outraged. They turned their M-16s on the building to the west where they believed the shooter was hiding. But that was just the beginning.
A gunner sitting in the armored turret of a Humvee fired 40-millimeter grenades non-stop into the building — until the gun jammed.
Staff Sgt. Terry Mcelwain of Burden, Kan., was angry. He grabbed the bazooka-like AT-4 rocket launcher from the back of another Humvee.
It’s fire trail zipped into the now-smoking building. Mcelwain wanted Weapons Company to fire a TOW missile as well, but low-hanging electrical wires made it impossible — so he called up the tanks.
Two Abrams tanks lumbered toward the target. They stopped and fired their main guns in unison. The explosion shook the street. But the Marines weren’t done yet. They poured in more rounds from .50-caliber machine guns and their M16s.
But as the unit moved past the building, going from east to west, another RPG exploded behind them, then a third. More casualties.
A Navy corpsman cut the pants leg off one of the injured and wrapped a gauze dressing around the bleeding wound, while another Marine provided cover with a 249-SAW (Squad Assault Weapon).
Regardless of how much firepower the Marines brought to bear, they were unable to silence this phantom enemy, which continued to fire on them from the rear.
Then insurgent snipers began firing in front of the Marines as well. One round pierced the Kevlar helmet of a 21-year-old Mark 19 gunner in the vehicle carrying this reporter. The gunner was badly wounded. He was put in a canvas stretcher, and six Marines ran through the streets carrying him to a waiting military ambulance.
A little later another RPG round hit a Humvee but didn’t explode. The Marines were rattled but uninjured.
A Marine who caught shrapnel in the face was led to the safety of an empty storefront, his eyes bandaged shut and his hands outstretched, probing the air in front of him.
Street by street battle
The Marines knew they were being hunted.
They were boxed from the east and the west in a treacherous kill zone by an enemy they could feel but not see.
Their superior firepower was checked by the insurgents’ knowledge of the city, their cunning in using blind alleyways and the crooks and crannies of buildings.
The gun battle continued late into the night — eventually an AC-130 gunship was called in and strafed what the Marines called Elizabeth Street with its mini guns.
With eight of their men wounded, it was a bloody and disappointing start for these Marines and a reminder that to win the battle for Fallujah, they will likely have to win the fight block by block, street by street.
Kevin Sites is an NBC News correspondent on assignment in Iraq. For more of his observations from Iraq, see his blog at kevinsites.net.