With weapons drawn, U.S. Marines dove through blown-out windows of an abandoned building near the insurgent stronghold Fallujah, searching for gunmen.
This time it was training. Soon, it may be for real, as Marines prepare for a showdown against Sunni Muslim fighters in Fallujah, the focus of Iraqi resistance.
“I know this is the video game generation,” a Marine instructor bellowed at troops during urban warfare drills. “And what you see when you’re playing ‘Medal of Honor.’ well, the same thing you see there is what will keep you alive outside.”
U.S. commanders who hope to quell Iraq’s insurgency before nationwide elections in January say Fallujah has become a main planning and staging center for violence and needs to be brought under control. But they also stress the order to attack must come from Iraq’s interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.
Since Marines aborted an April attack on Fallujah amid widespread Iraqi dismay over reports of civilian casualties, the insurgents have been bombing U.S. convoys and hitting their bases daily with mortar and rocket fire.
The Marines are packing ammunition, cleaning their rifles and practicing urban assault tactics as they prepare to strike.
“We just want to go in and get the job done. We’ve had a leash on for five months and we’re seeing our buddies die everyday,” said Cpl. Trevor Hill, 23, of Boise, Idaho. “Right now, we’re in the boxing ring — with our hands tied behind our backs.”
In one camp near Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, the men of 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines sat in the sun and polished their assault weapons to the sounds of rap impresario Dr. Dre.
They unloaded ammunition from shipping containers, listened to first aid instruction and fired assault weapons and machine guns at the shooting range. Hot meals have been curtailed and the Marines have been mostly eating prepackaged rations from plastic pouches.
Their commanders expect a tough fight. The Iraqi prime minister has warned Fallujah he will use force if the city does not hand over foreign fighters — who city fathers claim aren’t there.
While other officers estimate up to 5,000 fighters are in Fallujah, Lt. Col. Willy Buhl said only about 1,000 will likely “stand their ground (and) resist” in the city of mosques and markets on the banks of the Euphrates.
Insurgents also are girding for battle by boobytrapping and blocking roads and disguising sniper emplacements, U.S. officers say. Skirmishes on the outskirts of the city are reported almost daily.
On Thursday, four masked insurgents set up a mortar position in one of the city’s dusty courtyards, laying sandbags to support the base of the launching tube, Associated Press Television News footage showed. A man dressed in black crouched down and squinted at a small compass, apparently to direct the firing. The men fired several mortar shells, shouting “Allahu akbar” or “God is Great” with each shot.
Foreign fighters seen as toughest
Some of the toughest Fallujah fighters are likely men from Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, said Buhl, 42, of Los Gatos, Calif.
While no estimate of the number of foreign fighters exists, Buhl said U.S. forces are seeing “increasing numbers” of such fighters, who have taken over much of Fallujah’s southern areas.
Buhl said they’ve also captured militants trained in the armed forces of neighboring Syria, although he didn’t know if the men were currently serving. “We’ve certainly detained some with solid military skills,” he said.
The U.S. forces entering Fallujah would be searching for the al-Qaida-allied Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who Buhl said is “in and out of the city.”
Buhl said another target would be Omar Hadid, an Iraqi he called the “de-facto military leader” in Fallujah.
Buhl said infighting among the various armed factions in Fallujah has been reported and the fighters are trying to co-opt historical tribal rule in the region, using extortion and murder to pressure sheiks to their side.
Shutting down a 'safe haven'
“The city has clearly been a safe haven for terrorists,” Buhl said, adding the absence of U.S. forces “has given them the opportunity to plan, organize and execute terrorism. The independence of that city has been a lure for foreign fighters.”
“We believe that eliminating this terror base will help bring that city, and Iraq, into the process of legitimate governance.”
While young Marines privately owned up to an amount of trepidation ahead of any Fallujah assault, they also welcomed a chance to fight their way into the annals of military history.
“This is the most important thing of my generation and I’m part of it. I can already see the pages in the history books,” said Lance Cpl. Mike Detmer, 25, of Lynchburg, Va.
After months living under the daily hail of mortar and rocket fire, Detmer paraphrases Civil War Gen. Stonewall Jackson: “I feel as safe on the battlefield as I do in bed.”
Jackson died of wounds suffered in a “friendly fire” incident at the Battle of Chancellorsville.