When the U.S. troops entered the abandoned factory shed Sunday, they found a hastily abandoned campsite full of jumbled clothing and bedrolls, scattered sneakers and gym bags, broken eggs and dirty cooking pots.
But there were other, less innocent objects half-hidden in the gloom. Sacks full of chemical-coated rocks. Leather belts stuffed with explosive putty, and one smeared with dried blood. Boxes of batteries with wires taped to them. Instructions for making bombs.
"This was a 16-man terrorist cell," pronounced a Marine captain, rifling through the mess. "See? All the bags and sneakers are brand new, all the same make. This took money and planning. Someone sponsored them."
Among the debris were more intimate clues to the identity and motives of the suicide squad that had lived, prayed and made bombs in the shed, preparing to do battle with the 2,500 Marines who entered sections of this turbulent city one week ago.
The evidence -- Islamic books, pamphlets, tapes and farewell letters in Arabic -- suggested that some of the men were not Iraqis from the area, but foreign Sunni Muslims who had traveled to this urban Sunni stronghold to fight and die in a holy war, both against the U.S. forces and the country's Shiite Muslim majority.
"I say goodbye with tears in my eyes and heart, and I ask God for victory," read one letter, which suggested the writer's parents had tried to stop him from leaving home. "Father, don't blame yourself. I am happy to be here," it said. "Mother, don't be weak. Raise your children to be martyrs for the cause."
The urban guerrillas battling Marines since last Monday have put up a fierce and well-organized fight, and Marine officials said early last week that they believed foreign Islamic fighters had joined the local insurgents. On Thursday the Marines shot and killed a sniper who was wearing a suicide belt, and they have since discovered seven suicide bomb devices in various hiding places.
But so far they have not conclusively established that any of the insurgents were foreign infiltrators. Several detained Sudanese nationals turned out to be longtime workers here, and Marine officials said Sunday that they had used grenades and bombs to explode the corpses of two snipers shot while wearing suicide devices, which made them impossible to identify.
But the unearthing of the Islamic documents among the bomb-making materials Sunday, while two foreign journalists and an Arabic interpreter were present, suggested that at least some of the suicide squad members were not from Iraq.
Some letters referred to repaying old debts, patching up quarrels and acquiring false passports. Others read like sermons, and one contained a poem saying that "the blood of martyrs smells sweet." Most were in blank envelopes and some were signed with Islamic noms de guerre such as Abu Ahmed. They were apparently intended to be delivered home by messengers.
In one letter, dated April 4, a man urged a friend to leave behind worldly concerns and come join a "beautiful" war against Shiite "nonbelievers" and Americans. "This is like Iran, there are many Shiites and we need to fight them," he wrote. "We are in another Kandahar, and we will burn the Americans." Kandahar, a city in Afghanistan, was the religious stronghold of the Taliban, the extremist Sunni militia that was toppled by U.S.-led forces in 2001.
There were also notebooks with instructions on how to make a bomb and where to launch attacks against American facilities in Baghdad, 35 miles east.
As they listened to the letters being translated, the young Marines looked incredulous. Then someone opened a wallet that contained drawings of U.S. military insignia, evidently meant to pick out important targets. "I see captain and lieutenant, but no warrant officer. Guess I'm safe," said one Marine with a nervous laugh.
The squad examining the shed also inspected several other weapons caches in the abandoned factory zone Sunday, including a freezer full of mortar rounds and a pile of rice sacks from Vietnam that contained machine-gun ammunition. Officers said most of the material would be detonated or destroyed.
‘This is the job that needs to be done’
After the troops finished their work, they left several riflemen on guard, wishing them a happy Easter, and headed back to their command post in an empty pottery and carpentry workshop. Some rested in dust-covered armchairs; others gathered around a corporal who was being treated for a shrapnel wound in the knee.
"When I saw those [suicide] vests, I thought those people obviously don't value life," said one staff sergeant, shaking his head in bewilderment. A 20-year-old corporal, Philip Dennis, said he had expected to be building schools in Iraq, not dodging mortar shells.
"I'm a humanitarian person, and I don't believe in killing for no reason, but I guess this is the job that needs to be done," he said. On his first day of combat, Dennis recounted, he climbed on a roof and was astonished to see dozens of black-robed insurgents with AK-47 rifles. "I had no idea they had so many people, and I realized this was very big." He paused and added, "We killed a lot of them."
A few minutes later, a Navy chaplain arrived at the command post in a Humvee to hold a brief Easter communion service, which he repeated at two more front-line posts.
"God, we pray that our actions here give some glory back to you," said Navy Chaplain Wayne Hall, 36, who set up his communion vessels on a factory workbench. "We live in grace even here, and we are not afraid of death. ... None of us wants to die here, but death is the blink of an eye, and you wake up in paradise."
One young corpsman, tending to an injured man in his command post, said he had little time to think about Easter but a great deal to live for. Picking up his helmet, he displayed a snapshot of his baby son glued to the inside.
He also said he was keeping a war diary that he would eventually take home to California. One entry was addressed to his wife, in Spanish and dated April 6 -- two day after the suicide squad member had written to his friend in Arabic, urging him to become a fellow martyr in the "beautiful" war against Shiites and Americans.
"Hello my dear, how is my precious boy?" the Marine's letter began. "We are in the middle of the most dangerous operation in the world. Thousands of Marines are united in this battle to eliminate terrorists from this city. Last night we got in a fierce firefight and I could see the explosions and rockets going up in the sky. Tonight I expect an even more dangerous mission, and I hope I can write you again tomorrow and tell you how it went."