In a fight that has been compared to both Hue (1968) and Dodge City (19th century), U.S. Marines spent most of last week fighting house-to-house for control of several urban centers in Iraq. The worst of the fighting has been in the towns of Fallujah and Ramadi. There, young Marine riflemen, many less than a year out of boot camp, have been battling black-masked rebel gunmen who don’t seem to care whether they live or die.
The Marines have the advantage of superior battlefield technologies, as well as air and tank support. But in the narrow streets and alleyways, where both belligerents are closing to within yards of one-another, technological advantages are greatly lessened. The edge instead goes to the quickest, most-accurate marksmen and those who are conditioned physically and emotionally to handle the clamor and horror of close-quarters battle.
Fortunately, the Marines are winning. Unfortunately, there have been losses.
Last week, 47 American soldiers and Marines were killed, countrywide. Nearly a thousand Iraqi guerillas–both Shiite and Sunni–were killed.
The death toll spiked on April 6. That day, 12 Marines were killed and over 20 wounded when Iraqi guerillas launched a surprise attack against a U.S. base in Ramadi, just up the road from Fallujah.
Americans back home were shocked. One man compared the Ramadi casualties to the losses suffered during the initial assaults up Hamburger Hill in 1969, a battle lasting for 10 days and ultimately costing the lives of 70 American soldiers. Others have confessed they believe the Iraqi war might be spiraling out of control.
Marines in the fight, however, have an entirely different perception.
“We’re all doing great,” said 1st Lt. Eric Knapp, in a e-mail message to me, a few hours into the battle. “The Marines of 2/4 [2nd Battalion, 4th Marines] fought hard and long yesterday and lost 12, but inflicted double that on the attackers.”
Knapp, a spokesman for the 1st Marine Division, is based in Ramadi where the 12 Marines died. He conceded, “we are fighting a tough battle,” but his press briefs over the next several days detailed the capture of numerous suspected terrorists and scores of enemy combatants killed.
Heavy fighting erupted early in the week when Marines moved into Fallujah seeking those who, on March 31, killed four American civilian contractors, mutilated their bodies, and then dragged them through the city’s streets before hanging them from a bridge.
The fighting escalated in Fallujah and Ramadi, and quickly spread to other Iraqi cities. Meanwhile, a series of raids near the Iraqi-Syrian border netted several captured terrorists, including ten “high-value targets,” two large weapons caches, and “the disruption of the terrorist network in the western portion of the Al Anbar Province.” According to Knapp, the capture of the “high-value targets” yielded solid intelligence increasing the effectiveness of U.S. forces operating in the area. Still the fighting has been difficult for Marines and soldiers on the front. The enemy is rarely in uniform. They are familiar with their neighborhoods. And civilians are often in the crossfire – which is where the guerillas want them.
“What you are really facing is what we Marines call ‘the three-block war,’” said Lt. Col. Matthew Lopez, 40, a Chicago-native currently leading Marines on the Iraqi-Syrian border. “On one block you can be doing humanitarian aid. In another block you could be providing security. In the third block you could be engaged in full combat. In this environment, the transition between those three blocks happens instantaneously.”
As the battle raged in Fallujah, reports of Marines attacking a mosque filled with worshipers–including women and children–threatened to derail any chance for winning the proverbial hearts-and-minds. But within hours, the reports were deemed nothing more than anti-Coalition disinformation. Photographs proved the mosque was not damaged. Additionally, those inside were not women and children, but a platoon of enemy combatants firing at U.S. troops. According to the 1st Marine Division’s daily brief of April 8, “The enemy combatants firing from the mosque blatantly misused a protected symbol by conducting offensive military operations from a place of worship. As a result, the mosque lost its protected status and regretfully became a lawful military target.”
Nevertheless, the only damage was to a wall several hundred yards away. By knocking down a portion of the wall, the Marines were able to enter the compound and wipe out the enemy force.
Marines were later fired on by insurgents holed up in at least two other mosques. In one instance near Abu Gharayb, a local imam assisted Marines in a search of his mosque after U.S. forces drew fire from the building. During the search, two enemy combatants were killed.
Near Mahmudiyah, Marines together with members of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC) engaged insurgents who were battling from behind fortified positions in a local mosque. After gaining the upper hand, the Marines and the ICDC soldiers sought and were granted permission by a senior cleric to enter the structure. Inside, two enemy combatants were killed and nine wounded. As in other engagements where possible, the Marines immediately rendered first aid to their foes.
Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis, commanding general of the 1st Marine Division, said that his forces would continue to respect holy sites and operate in a “humanitarian” fashion in their efforts to control the cities. The general added, however, Iraqi insurgents would be fought on his terms, and “May God help them when we’re done with them.”
Mattis’s younger leathernecks believe last week’s battle was inevitable. They are also convinced that the individual guerilla is basically afraid and knows his days are numbered.
During a brief lull in the fighting, 21-year-old Cpl. Philip Cook of West Virginia, said he knew there were “plenty of them [enemy combatants]” remaining who had temporarily withdrawn from the front. “There just weren’t any more who wanted to mess with us last night.”
As fighting continued around the Fallujah-Ramadi area, insurgents stepped up their attacks on highway convoys and began taking foreign civilians hostage. They threatened to behead some of the hostages or burn them alive.
By Friday, April 9, Ambassador Paul Bremer ordered the suspension of offensive operations by the Marines in-and-around Fallujah. The ceasefire, which officially began on Saturday, is a chance for cooler heads among the rebel forces to prevail.
On Sunday, elements of the U.S. Army’s 1st Armored Division retook the city Al-Kut after the city was abandoned last week by Ukrainian troops. At the same time, over a million Iraqi Shiites were marking the Muslim holy day of al-Arbaeen in Karbala and other Shiite cities. Large sectors of city centers were still in rebel hands. Fighting was sporadic throughout the country. On the western outskirts of Baghdad, a U.S. helicopter was shot down, killing both crewmembers. A few foreign hostages were released. The fate of others was still unknown. And thousands of U.S. Marines surrounding Fallujah were eagerly awaiting further orders to attack.
“The big fight–this big Fallujah face-off–had to happen at some point,” said Cpl. Mike Baccellieri, 23, of Portland, Oregon. “Let’s get it over with so we can start rebuilding this place and get out of here.”
–A former U.S. Marine infantry leader and paratrooper, W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in a variety of national and international publications. His third book, Alpha Bravo Delta Guide to American Airborne Forces, has just been published.