Digging in around Fallujah, their 3-day-old truce punctured by shelling, gunfire and well-orchestrated ambushes, U.S. Marines gave vent to their frustrations Tuesday, saying they saw no alternative to an all-out battle for the city.
With U.S.-backed Iraqi officials still talking with city leaders about ending the standoff, it’s not for the troops to decide how this tangle of conflicting forces will unravel.
But as Marines traded gun and mortar fire with rooftop snipers and fighters on the northern edge of Fallujah, some of them anticipated a bloody push to take the city of 200,000 people, a stronghold of Sunni Muslim insurgents.
“If they’re trying to find a peaceful way out of this, great. But at this point, there seem to be few options other than to get innocents out and level it, wipe it clear off the map,” said 1st Lt. Frank Dillbeck, scanning the city’s outskirts with binoculars during a relative lull in fighting.
Insurgents fired mortars at bulldozers digging earthen defenses but hit none. Marines responded with mortars and machine guns in sporadic volleys. A Marine with an M-16 shot dead a man on a balcony shouting orders to black-clad men below, Dillbeck said. He was thought to be directing snipers and mortar fire.
Dillbeck, 29, from McCormick, S.C., commands a platoon from the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, trying to seal the northern edge of Fallujah. Insurgents used the shaky cease-fire to edge closer to Dillbeck’s troops on Tuesday, taking up positions in buildings and firing rifles and rocket-propelled grenades over the earth barriers and foxholes.
At one point, two rockets were fired from behind the troops — perhaps from an unguarded highway — and landed about 200 yards short, sending up plumes of black smoke.
'This is a dynamic enemy'
A heavy exchange of gunfire was heard Tuesday in Fallujah’s southern neighborhood of Nazal, smoke billowing into the sky. Soon afterward, two F-15s circled the city, firing into the area. Commanders said two Marine armored vehicles were under attack and the warplanes were providing them cover.
Dillbeck’s battalion of some 1,000 troops controls about five city blocks of sand-colored brick houses on the Euphrates River. Many families have left.
Insurgents have organized complex ambushes, launching attacks that combine roadside bombs, machine-gun fire and rockets, officers say.
“This is a dynamic enemy,” said Lt. Col. Brian Baggot, a senior watch officer with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force’s command center, which directs a force of 25,000 Marines in Fallujah and around the entire Al Anbar province, west of Baghdad.
One complex ambush began when a small girl led a herd of cattle across the highway in front of a seven-vehicle convoy, said Lance Cpl. Ryan Christiansen, 25, from the Chicago suburb of Huntley.
'Raining bullets sideways'
As the convoy slowed, dozens of gunmen hiding in tall grass and buildings along both sides of the zigzagging highway let loose with machine guns and small-arms fire.
“It was raining bullets sideways,” Christiansen said.
The commander of the convoy was shot in the leg and radioed to the others, “Hurry up; we got to get out of here,” Christiansen recalled. The commander was then fatally shot in the head. The Pentagon identified him as 34-year-old 1st Lt. Oscar Jimenez, of San Diego, Calif.
Lance Cpl. Christopher Laha, 22, was manning an automatic grenade launcher when he was shot in the arm. He tied a belt around his arm to stem the heavy bleeding before firing back, Christiansen said.
Gunmen rushed the convoy but it pushed ahead, leaving nine insurgents dead, the troops said.
Christiansen said he was unfazed by concerns that the gunmen may be using the cease-fire to regroup.
“I really don’t care; they’re all gonna die,” he said.
Pass the ammunition, and everything else
Meanwhile, Marines were resupplying, running coils of barbed wire, food, ammunition and fuel to troops dug into the city outskirts. Lt. Brian McDonald, 25, of Ashburn, Va., who led out a supply convoy, also expected things to get worse.
“Once the whole cease-fire is over, it’s going to start getting a little wilder out here,” he said. “They’re firing at us every night; sooner or later, enough is enough.”
His battalion arrived in Fallujah on Friday from the Syrian border, where it was guarding a hydroelectric dam. The 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment is well-known for its Marines who toppled a bronze statue of Saddam Hussein.
The fighting in Fallujah is what they expected but didn’t get when they entered Baghdad a year ago, said Maj. Andrew Petrucci, 32, the battalion’s executive officer, from Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
At least 78 U.S. troops and 890 Iraqis have died in April.