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Looking for battle, Marines find few foes

For U.S. Marines searching for foreign insurgents as part of Operation Matador, the weeklong offensive proved frustrating but deadly.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Cpl. Alexander Kalouf snapped an ammunition clip into his M-16 assault rifle and strapped grenades to his chest in the crowded hold of an armored vehicle, bursting into excited snatches of songs with other Marines as they headed into hoped-for battle.

Two seats away, Cpl. Jason Dominguez shouted as he led the fighters in prayer.

"This is your chance to rid the world of these evil bastards," he began, struggling to be heard over the rumble of the Amtrac armored vehicle's engine and the roar of the exhaust.

"We ask the Lord God to help us and Jesus to protect us," Dominguez, in black sunglasses, camouflage and body armor, yelled hoarsely as huddled Marines clenched their hands and bowed their heads over the muzzles of their rifles.

Bracing for battle
Dominguez prayed for victory. He tacked on for the close: "We hope you can bring us all back alive and in one piece. Someday, when we're 50-year-old men, we'll be sitting together and telling stories about the good times."

The Marines were in the middle of Operation Matador, an assault designed to flush out and capture or kill foreign fighters who had come to Iraq to join the insurgency against the U.S. military and the Iraqi government that it supports. Severing the insurgents' network north of the Euphrates River, commanders said, would cut off the supply of guerrillas, guns and money that was moving from Syria into northwestern Iraq and being passed along for attacks in Baghdad and other cities.

But from the outset, as Marines swept west in what would be a week-long operation, scores of foreign fighters had fled ahead of them, residents of towns farther east told the Marine commanders.

Itching for a fight
After one battle May 8 that killed at least two Marines, a roadside bomb that claimed another six on Wednesday and days of fruitless hunting for the enemy, the Marines were ready for a fight. The remote village of Arabi, just two miles from the Syrian border, looked to be the place. If the Americans found Arabi in the hands of foreign fighters, said Marine Maj. Steve Lawson, commander of Lima Company in the 3rd Battalion, 25th Regiment, "we'll make it rubble."

On Thursday, as their column of tanks, armored vehicles and Humvees rolled into Arabi, the Marines in the Amtrac joked, checked their weapons repeatedly and sat tensely.

"There's the mosque!" shouted one of the gunners, craning out the top hatch of the dark green armored vehicle and spotting one of the places where locals said foreign fighters had made a base. The gunners held weapons ready nearby, scanning.

Minutes passed. Poised for the sounds of AK-47 assault rifle fire, bullets clinking on the metal of the armored vehicles and explosions, the Marines heard nothing. They saw no one on deserted streets.

After a half-hour in town, a gunner yelled: "There's a sheep."

"Shoot it!" another Marine joked.

Down in the hold, Kalouf yawned.

'I hate this country!'
The Marines' slow drive west had been punctuated by the booms of controlled blasts destroying roadside bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. The booms mixed with the sharper bursts of mortar rounds exploding and the crackle of automatic weapons -- what the Marines called nuisance fire from the south bank of the Euphrates.

Since May 8, when Operation Matador's scheduled start was accelerated by an unexpected but fierce clash at the riverside town of Ubaydi, the Marines had found no one to fight. But the insurgents left proxies to do the killing for them: meticulously rigged roadside bombs and mines, planted on dirt roads where wheels or tank treads would pass, or along bridges.

Primed for battle, the Marines found only booby traps. Sometimes they found them too late.

On Wednesday, two artillery rounds buried in the road detonated under an Amtrac, blowing a two-foot-wide hole in its armor plating. The explosion set off ammunition inside the vehicle, creating an inferno.

As the Amtrac burned, a 24-year-old Marine in a nearby vehicle grabbed his helmet in both fists and wrenched it. "I hate this country!" he screamed.

Helicopters had just flown out more than a dozen victims from the Amtrac, two of whom would die of their wounds. Four others already lay dead inside the burning hulk. The young Marine slammed his gun mount, sending the machine gun spinning, and knocked over piles of rations and ammunition boxes in the back of his truck, striking out at nothing in frustration.

Hours later, a Marine sniper picked a volunteer for company and headed out on a freelance night mission, hoping to find by stealth the bombers that 1,000 Marines had failed to roust out.

One house at a time
The mortar shell hit, and the young mother's face collapsed in fear. She clutched her child, giving up her efforts to reassure the girl by smiling bravely at the house full of armed foreign intruders.

With no Arabic speakers among the Marines, no English spoken among the villagers of Arabi, and Lima Company's already sparse crew of Iraqi interpreters reduced when one quit in mid-battle at Ubaydi, there was no way to tell her the mortar round was meant for others, the nuisance gunmen across the Euphrates. Heavy-caliber weapons fire burst out, Marines firing at something else.

A towheaded Marine in his early twenties, glaring, his lower lip thrust out by snuff, questioned the landowner on the doorstep of his stone house, chickens and goats rooting outside. The Marine spoke pidgin Arabic, demanding where the foreign fighters were, where the bad guys were: "Mujaheddin wayne? Ali Baba wayne?"

The landowner, in the long white robe of Iraqi village men, spread his empty hands wide. "Mako-shi. Mako-shi," he said. Nothing, nothing.

Shrugging, another young Marine gently lifted a toddler out of the doorway, clearing the way for the search to start.

Down the road, a family having a breakfast of flat bread and yogurt on the porch invited a Marine search patrol to share the meal with them. The Marines refused, but gathered round when a woman called their attention to a toddler badly burned by a fall against a heater. Medical Corpsman John Jenkins treated the wound and covered it with gauze.

"Clear!" the Marines inside yelled. Chalking their squad number on the front door to show other Marines the house had already been searched, they moved on.

House-to-house searches are a mainstay of the Marines' work in Iraq. They work their way through towns to look for insurgents, weapons and bomb-making material and to draw fire from anyone who might be looking for a fight. In their first few months here, the young Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 25th Regiment estimated they had searched 1,000 houses.

Commandeered homes provide relief
Sometimes, the Marines busted up wooden furniture belonging to poor farm families and threw their polyester blankets and clothes in a jumble on the floor. A handful of the hundreds of Marines involved in Operation Matador walked out of homes with a pillow or blanket to cushion the ride in the Amtrac. Sometimes, Marines agreed at one commandeered house as they drank a rousted family's tea, they beat up suspicious-looking men if that was what it took to get information that could save lives.

At the end of a day of searches, Marines generally commandeer houses for the night, shooing the families out in case the Americans' presence makes the homes targets for attack.

At one house in Arabi claimed by Lima Company Capt. Bill Brown's platoon, a frightened teenage girl darted to catch a toddler who had conked his head on the floor. She fell, badly spraining her leg.

Young Marines clustered round the girl, pulling out an Arabic phrase book and calling the corpsman. "Doctor, doctor!" they said, pointing to the corpsman. They pointed to their eyes, slapped their legs, and pointed to the girl: The medic wants to see her leg.

Mother and father strained across the culture gap to keep the well-intentioned young American men from looking at the thigh of their 13-year-old daughter. "Yalla," the father said. Go away. He smiled widely and politely, shoving the Marines out of the room. "Yalla." The family quickly scooted out of the house afterward, leaving it to the young Americans.

The Marines hauled in boxes of plastic-pouched rations and bottled water, and pulled out the family's blankets, pillows and chairs to place in front of the family's satellite television. Circled round it, they hung on each word of a BBC report on Malaysia. It was their first word from the outside world in weeks.

Across the street, Marines sprawled in a rare air-conditioned bedroom watching a guest on CBS's "The Early Show" grate Parmesan onto roasted asparagus.

Marines themselves eat little besides the heavily prepared, starchy, candy-laden Meals Ready to Eat packaged a year or so ago at a plant in Indiana. One young Marine's recent effort to vary their diet by taking a live turkey, cutting its head off with a shovel and boiling the carcass had turned out badly.

The Marines in the bedroom watched the cooking demonstration to the end. One turned to a friend. "Do you like eggplant?" he asked.

Before dawn Friday, Brown got up and washed the tea glasses used by his Marines. He left them drying on the family's sideboard. It doesn't pay to make enemies, Brown said.

An elusive quarry
"Where the [expletive] are these guys?" Maj. Kei Braun exclaimed in frustration.

It was noon Friday. The Marines had swept Arabi and found only frightened Iraqi families hiding in their homes. They had found more bombs in the roads, but no enemy to fight.

Marines said many of the foreign fighters fled west into Syria or to Husaybah, a lawless Iraqi border town where foreign fighters and local tribesmen have battled each other this month for control, shooting it out in the streets with AK-47s and mortars, American officials say. But the Marines lack the manpower to go into Husaybah.

So, within sight of Syria, they searched caves in the high, sheer rock escarpment that circles part of Arabi. Seeing a man come out of a cave, look out and go back in, a U.S. helicopter crew shot a Hellfire missile. Commanders came on the radio. Those were ordinary Iraqis hiding inside the caves, the commanders said. Hold off.

"These people here, it's not their fault," Kalouf, a young combat engineer with a mission to blow things up, said at the house commandeered by Brown's platoon. "They're scared for their lives. I used to get mad at them, but now I understand."

The insurgents were the only enemies, but they wouldn't come out to fight. "Frankly, I'm tired of going around not seeing anything, not knowing anything, and then having Marines, guys I know, get blown up by mines," Kalouf said.

"I'd much rather foreign fighters come out and shoot at us. We can respond to that," Kalouf said, as the Americans got ready to head back across the Euphrates. "We can't stand all their IEDs and mines, crap like that. Because we can't do that.''