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How to Squeeze a City The Fallujah siege is a textbook case of what the Marines are trained to do By MARK THOMPSON
Posted Sunday, April 11, 2004 The place that Corporal Mike Baccellieri and 20 other U.S. Marines were calling home in Fallujah bears witness to the brutality of the fight they are waging. Empty brass casings, cigarette cartons and ammunition boxes lay strewn about the floor of the commandeered house. The Marines were essentially pinned down inside the building for several days last week while insurgents peppered it with small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). Whenever U.S. attack helicopters swooped in to fire rockets into the city, they were greeted with gunfire. Marines on the ground spotted the muzzle flashes and called in bombs directed at the shooters. "This big fight had to happen at some point," said Baccellieri, 23, from Portland, Ore., as he leaned against a wall of the house during a lull in the fighting. "Let's get it over with, so we can start rebuilding the place and get out of here." It may take some time. What unfolded in Fallujah last week is exactly the kind of war the U.S. managed to avoid in toppling Saddam Hussein. While America's strategy worked well at the time—U.S. troops bypassed Iraqi cities on their way to Baghdad and didn't even pass through Sunni-dominated Fallujah—it has allowed the insurgency to fester. The Marines came to the Euphrates River town last month hoping to show a kinder face to residents than they had experienced at the hands of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. But after the slaughter of four American contractors in Fallujah early this month, U.S. commanders decided to reclaim the city. Last Monday about 1,500 Marines of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and some Army
special forces—along with 2,000 Iraqi security troops and about 50 U.S.-trained Iraqi commandos—began debriding Fallujah of its guerrillas as part of Operation Vigilant Resolve. In the first five days of fighting alone, as many as 300 civilians died in block-to-block combat, according to doctors at Fallujah's main hospital. "It's 17th century tactics," says Staff Sergeant Michael Ventrone, a Marine inside Fallujah. "It's under siege." The Marines have been following a standard script for pacifying a city. First they encircled Fallujah to trap the insurgents inside and prevent reinforcements from coming to their aid. The cordon around Fallujah is an estimated three miles long by two miles across. Supplies of food and medicine are permitted in, and women, children and old men are allowed to flee on foot. A 7 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew forces civilians into their houses at night, when the U.S. military, with its night-vision devices, prefers to fight. Leaflets warn residents to gather in a single room if Marines enter their homes. At first, the going was slow. By Tuesday, Marines entered the city but were stuck in the industrialized north and a few other pockets just inside the cordon. Help from the Iraqi security forces turned out to be minimal: following payday last week, most of them fled. That forced Marines to man the cordon, reducing the number available to scour Fallujah. But as the Marines penetrate deeper into the city, they have been adopting a divide-andconquer strategy. "You slice the city like a pie," says Bernard Trainor, a retired Marine lieutenant general. Each neighborhood-size slice is assigned to a Marine unit, whose members work to glean intelligence from pro-U.S. residents about the whereabouts of the insurgents on their "blacklists." The Marines are also carrying photographs of those who desecrated the bodies of the U.S. contractors and are paying informants for intelligence. A telephone hot line has been established for locals to rat out the location of the insurgents. In their assaults, the U.S. troops are relying as much as possible on arms with thread-theneedle accuracy: rifles and tanks backed up by AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunships and precisionguided bombs. "We want to get the guys we are after," says 2nd Lieut. James Vanzant. "We don't want to go in there with guns blazing." But the tenacity of the insurgents—Pentagon officials estimate they number in the hundreds—has surprised many Marines. They have reported seeing insurgents pop up out of the rubble left from 500-lb. bombs and resume firing at U.S. troops. Armed with AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, the insurgents have also detonated remote-controlled gasoline bombs, sending massive fireballs hundreds of feet into the nighttime sky. Marines in Fallujah have found belts packed with a blend of explosives and lead fishing weights—the weapon of choice for suicide bombers. For the Marines and the thousands of civilians trapped in Fallujah, a town of 300,000, it's a harrowing war. Small groups of Marines serve as bait, heading into danger by crossing streets or scampering over rooftops. Their goal is to draw fire from insurgents, betraying guerrilla positions to U.S. tanks and missiles lurking nearby. Cobra gunships have repeatedly rocketed groups of guerrillas, while the insurgents lob mortar shells and rockets at the Marine command post on the northern edge of town. The crackle of machine guns and muffled booms of mortars filled the corpse-littered streets with smoke. Four Marines were confirmed killed by the weekend. Iraqi casualties were heavy: locals said hundreds of civilians have been killed, though the U.S. says most of the dead are insurgents. On Wednesday, a U.S. air strike killed 40 people at the Abdel-Aziz al-Samarrai mosque, according to the Islamic Clerics Group located next to it, but Marine officers said only insurgents had been killed. The dead were buried in a soccer field, because Fallujah's cemeteries are all located outside the cordon.
City combat blunts the Marines' chief advantages: speed and awareness of what is ahead. Buildings create vast "dead spaces" where the enemy can hide. The cityscape hinders communications and prevents anything that flies low, like helicopters, spy drones and warplanes, from assisting friendly forces on the ground for very long. Life-and-death decisions must be made instantly: 90% of the targets are less than 50 yds. away and seen for only seconds. "When they start zinging RPGs in here, you can't really do anything about it," says Staff Sergeant Mike Conran. "It's really just dumb luck if you get hit." In some neighborhoods, the Marines say, anyone they spot in the streets is considered a "bad guy." Says Marine Major Larry Kaifesh: "It is hard to differentiate between people who are insurgents or civilians. You just have to go with your gut feeling." U.S. commanders say many residents of the town haven't declared their allegiance to either the coalition or the insurgents and are waiting to see who prevails. But the Marines sensed that, no matter how the battle turns out, winning hearts and minds in Fallujah after so much destruction may be impossible. "I think that was a pretty big step we took," said Corporal Andrew Stokef, 20, after Specter gunships pounded Fallujah for several hours. "There's no turning back now." Indeed, after the U.S. halted offensive operations late last week, sporadic battles soon resumed, with insurgents taking up positions in the minarets of some of the town's mosques. That violates the rules of war and permits the Marines to attack any minaret being used as a sniper perch. But the inescapable logic of the U.S. predicament now is that for every sniper they kill, the Marines risk inciting even more hatred among the people they are trying to save. —With reporting by Darrin Mortenson (North County Times)/Fallujah
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