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Last modified Saturday, April 10, 2004 10:52 PM PDT

Violence subsides for Marines in Fallujah

    Staff Sgt. Michael Venerone, 29, of Lake Zurich, Ill., and Capt. Kyle Stoddard, left, commanding officer of Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, run into a house the Marines have taken over on the northwest side of Fallujah, Iraq, on Saturday.
    Hayne Palmour
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    Marine Cpl. Juan Perez, 24, right, from the Bronx, New York and Lance Cpl. Jose Robles, 20, from Tustin, Calif. feed wild dog puppies an MRE, or meal ready to eat, after the Marines coaxed them out of their den at sunset at a Marine held position on the northwest side of Fallujah, Iraq on Saturday, April 10, 2004.
    Hayne Palmour
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    FALLUJAH, Iraq ---- The siege is still on but the violence subsided some in Fallujah on Saturday as American military and political leaders gave members of the new Iraqi government a day to persuade insurgents to stop resisting U.S. troops in the city.

    Wire services reported U.S. forces and Iraqi insurgents had agreed to begin a cease-fire at 10 this morning, but U.S. military authorities did not confirm the agreement. One condition of the cease-fire reportedly was that U.S. forces begin a withdrawal from the city within 12 hours. A member of the American-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, Mahmoud Othman, told Associated Press, "I don't know how likely that is."

    Insurgents and Marines occasionally skirmished along the city's fringes, but for the most part, each still hunted the other from afar.

    For the third straight day, American jets hurled 500-pound bombs at buildings. Insurgents fired rockets and lobbed mortars at the Marine positions, which are no secret now, six days after troops first encircled this embattled city northwest of Baghdad.

    What appears to be a standoff, however, is just the calm before the storm, Marines said.

    "I don't want to have to level the city," said Maj. Brandon McGowan, as some of his men set up in an emptied apartment building to watch activity in the city beyond.

    McGowan is the executive officer of the Camp Pendleton-based 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment ---- the battalion that has lost two Marines since Monday while fighting for a foothold in Fallujah's tough northwest corner.

    "I don't think the Marines really want to level the city, but," McGowan shrugged and trailed off, like many Marines have in the last two days as a full-scale assault on the city becomes the obvious next step.

    More Marines arrive

    About 1,000 infantrymen from a third Southern California Marine battalion arrived Saturday to reinforce the cordon established by two other battalions, and to join in whatever offensive operation follows this bloody and costly Holy Week.

    According to The Associated Press, the U.S. military's death toll from the week of fighting across the country stood at 47. The fighting has killed more than 500 Iraqis ---- including more than 280 in Fallujah, a hospital official said. At least 648 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq since the war began in March 2003.

    Officials said about 60,000 residents fled the city Friday in vehicles and on foot from checkpoints in the south.

    In the north, however, no men are allowed to leave the part of town where insurgents concentrated last week and have led coordinated attacks in neighborhoods they fortified with bunkers, barricades and weapons caches.

    Military officials no longer speak of winning hearts and minds in Fallujah.

    "At this point, this is conventional war," said McGowan, who added that what could go down in Fallujah is really the kind of head-on operation the Marines are trained for. "At the small unit level, the squad level, it may already seem like it has started. But really, at the battalion level and higher, this thing has not even really begun."

    Marines wait for offensive

    The street fighting that characterized the week since Tuesday hushed some in the north Saturday as troops held the first few blocks, awaiting orders to advance.

    Other Marines who were dug in along the cordon dug deeper to survive increasingly accurate mortar and rocket attacks.

    Rockets exploded about 9 p.m. Friday, kicking up rocks and dirt and knocking out power to a neighborhood Marines had taken over as a defensive base.

    "I was walking right over where the second or third one hit when I just yelled 'Hey! Hit the deck!' Lance Cpl. Adam Scott, 24, of Mustang, Okla., said Saturday morning, recounting the attack the night before. "We got lucky that time."

    After that attack, like the countless other attacks, Marines counted heads, checked for damage to vehicles and weapons, and got on with nightly watch shifts.

    Others tried to snatch a few hours of sleep between the outbursts of wild dogs and before the AC-130 Specter gunship started its nightly thundering, enforcing the nightly curfew from the sky.

    Day six dawns

    The sun up and the Specter gone, Marines awoke Saturday to faint sirens from ambulances collecting the night's casualties from a sector of the city that has been reduced to a smoldering ghost town.

    The calm on Saturday gave troops only enough time to come to grips with their environment and start thinking about the toll the fighting has taken.

    At the city's littered and dusty northern edge, stinking swamps have formed where tanks and tracked vehicles have broken farmers' water lines and carved out farmland to the water table, which is shallow from the Euphrates River some half-mile away.

    Soggy trash and human waste from makeshift latrines stew under the unforgiving sun, attracting hordes of fat black flies.

    The tenacious flies ---- that troops liken to the insurgents because "they just keep on coming" ---- land on food and cover hands and faces that never really get clean in the dust and sweat of the Marines' wartime workday.

    Fighting from a distance

    After pounding parts of the city for days, many Marines say the recent combat escalated into more than they had planned for, but not more than they could handle.

    "It's a war," said Cpl. Nicholas Bogert, 22, of Morris, N.Y.

    Bogert is a mortar team leader who directed his men to fire round after round of high explosives and white phosphorus charges into the city Friday and Saturday, never knowing what the targets were or what damage the resulting explosions caused.

    "We had all this SASO (security and stabilization operations) training back home," he said. "And then this turns into a real goddamned war."

    Just as his team started to eat a breakfast of packaged rations Saturday, Bogert got a fire mission over the radio.

    "Stand by!" he yelled, sending Lance Cpls. Jonathan Alexander and Jonathan Millikin scrambling to their feet.

    Shake 'n' bake

    Joking and rousting each other like boys just seconds before, the men were instantly all business. With fellow Marines between them and their targets, a lot was at stake.

    Bogert received coordinates of the target, plotted them on a map and called out the settings for the gun they call "Sarah Lee."

    Millikin, 21, from Reno, Nev., and Alexander, 23, from Wetumpka, Ala., quickly made the adjustments. They are good at what they do.

    "Gun up!" Millikin yelled when they finished a few seconds later, grabbing a white phosphorus round from a nearby ammo can and holding it over the tube.

    "Fire!" Bogert yelled, as Millikin dropped it.

    The boom kicked dust around the pit as they ran through the drill again and again, sending a mixture of burning white phosphorus and high explosives they call "shake 'n' bake" into a cluster of buildings where insurgents have been spotted all week.

    They say they have never seen what they've hit, nor did they talk about it as they dusted off their breakfast and continued their hilarious routine of personal insults and name-calling.

    Say 'cheese'

    Every day since they started firing rounds into the city, other Marines have stopped by the mortar pit to take a turn dropping mortars into the tube and firing at some unseen target.

    Like tourists at some macabre carnival, some bring cameras and have other troops snap photos of their combat shot. Even the battalion surgeon fired a few Saturday, just for sport.

    Everyone wants to "get some," the troops explain, some joking that Fallujah is like a live-fire range.

    Some have started to think of what happens after all the guns go silent.

    "I just don't want to come home and have someone calling me a baby killer," Alexander said after firing dozens of high explosive mortar rounds into the city. "That would piss me off."

    Alexander said no one has told him what the charges have hit.

    Anxious to move again

    While they've hunkered down in their sandbagged positions, some of the Marines have come out of their shell.

    As the sun set Saturday, Lance Cpl. Jose Robles, 20, of Tustin and Cpl. Juan Perez, 24, of the Bronx, N.Y., took a moment to feed their neighbors: four wild fuzzy puppies that live in holes and tunnels they've burrowed in the huge berm along Fallujah's train tracks.

    The puppies wagged filthy tails and let out little squeals as the Marines fed them from the packaged rations. The puppies didn't care for the food any more than the Marines, but lapped up copious amounts of water before the two troops went back to work.

    Earlier Saturday, Lance Cpl. Joseph McCarthy ate a big black dung beetle to win a $40 bet, and to kill the time.

    "That one tasted kinda funky," he said, washing it down with a swallow of water. "The big long one I ate last year tasted better."

    Just killing time

    Sitting atop a train trestle watching bombs drop on the city beyond, Lance Cpl. Scott said such antics didn't shock him. The Marines were just trying to deal with time and discomfort while they wait for the battle for Fallujah to really kick off.

    "I'm glad to see we're not going to be (messing) around anymore," Scott said. "We're going to finally go in and get it done. I just don't want to have to come back here a year from now to have to finish something."

    What the "it" is that needs to get done is something most Marines don't explain, but they say "it" is what they do best.

    "They were never really that comfortable with the 'no better friend part,' " said Navy chaplain Lt. Scott Redatski, referring to "No better friend ---- No worse enemy" ---- the motto the Marines used when there was still talk of trying to win hearts and minds in Fallujah.

    "But they seem pretty ready to be 'no worse enemy,' " Redatski said. "This is what they're trained for. This is what they do."

    Staff writer Darrin Mortenson and staff photographer Hayne Palmour are reporting from Iraq, where they are with Camp Pendleton Marines. Their coverage is collected at www.nctimes.com/military/iraq.


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