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Ambush reignites fighting in Fallujah

Fierce fighting erupted in Fallujah Tuesday between U.S. Marines and anti-American guerrillas. The renewed combat came after three days of relative calm.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Fierce fighting erupted here Tuesday between U.S. Marines and anti-American guerrillas. A group of Marines was ambushed at dawn in a marsh where they were guarding a downed helicopter, and U.S. fighter jets and gunships attacked another area at dusk after a Marine patrol came under attack.

The renewed combat came after three days of relative calm, during which U.S. forces stopped attacking so civilians could leave the embattled city, emergency aid convoys could enter and political leaders could try to negotiate an end to the fighting, which began when the Marines surrounded Fallujah eight days ago. More than 3,000 U.S. troops are now deployed in and around this city of 300,000, about 35 miles west of Baghdad.

Officials said one Marine was killed and seven others wounded Tuesday in combat around Fallujah.

'Right into an ambush'
The day's fighting began in a swampy village area about 14 miles southeast of the city, where an Army H-53 helicopter had crash landed at about midnight. A squad of 45 Marines in nine armed Humvees was quickly sent out to guard the site, officials and squad members said.

Just after sunrise, the troops were snacking in their vehicles when mortar fire erupted from the high reeds around them. They gunned their engines while firing back and tried to flee, but their path was blocked by a canal and they had to return and run a gantlet of rifle and grenade fire.

"We walked right into an ambush," one sergeant said Tuesday afternoon, using his finger to diagram the incident in the dust of a hangar where his exhausted troops sprawled. "The firing kept getting worse, but the elephant grass was so tall we couldn't see where it was coming from. We had to do a U-turn and go back through the same ambush, with guns blazing from behind the bushes."

With many vehicles heavily damaged, the convoy limped several miles to the highway checkpoint that serves as the Marines' emergency medical station, where several men were treated for shrapnel wounds and other injuries.

At mid-morning, when the squad returned to the Marine base camp in an abandoned factory in Fallujah, word of the ambush spread quickly. Grim-faced men hugged each other and swore. A Navy chaplain called in squad members in groups of 10, and they huddled around him on cardboard boxes in a dark corner of the factory.

"I talked to them about reaction to stress, how it's a poison that gets into our soul and we have to find ways to let it out," said the chaplain, Wayne Hall. "I told them the most important thing right now is for them to keep watching out for each other, both out there in battle and asleep here at night."

Frustration and confusion
Many Marines here expressed frustration that the ambush had occurred while they were under orders not to attack and said they were eager to return to full combat. They also said they were worried that the three-day lull had given the insurgents time to regroup and resupply.

"Nobody likes to sit still," said one sergeant who was pacing in the Marine compound. "There was a feeling that we had them on the run three days ago, and now we're just sitting here while the diplomats talk and the bad guys lay ambushes for us."

Another Marine, his face flushed with anger, approached an interpreter on the base and said, "I just want to know why my friends are being hurt. Don't the Iraqis know we are here to help them build something new and better now that Saddam is gone?"

Yet troops from the ambushed squad said they had found some Fallujah residents to be friendly and cooperative. A private said he had been camped for days on one city block and been treated kindly by the neighbors.

He said some families had run out of food and water and were grateful when the troops shared theirs.

Ready to resume offensive
Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne, commander of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment here, said his forces were ready to resume the offensive but would not do so unless the negotiations failed and they were ordered back to full combat.

"Marines are warlike men, but we understand that the military is an instrument of the political process," he said. "We are standing fast, and we are prepared to do whatever we are instructed. We are being shot at, but the insurgents are playing to our strength. Every time they unmask and pop up, we are able to destroy them."

After a relatively quiet afternoon, the Marines rushed back into action at dusk after troops patrolling the city in armored assault vehicles reportedly were attacked by rocket and mortar fire. In retaliation, AC-130 gunships and F-14 jets were called in, and machine-gun fire and loud booms were heard as they flew over the city.

In addition to Tuesday's assaults on U.S. military targets, Marine officials said, insurgents attacked several convoys carrying both relief supplies and negotiators into the city, firing at the vehicles and laying explosive devices along their route.

"It is clear . . . that the terrorists rooted in Fallujah are willing to harm the people of Iraq to carry out their agenda," the Marines said in a statement.