`Safe' area suddenly becomes battle zone

Marines come under fire in Fallujah neighborhood

April 07, 2004|By Tony Perry | Tony Perry,LOS ANGELES TIMES

FALLUJAH, Iraq - The battle to retake Fallujah began yesterday where Marines least expected it: near a cluster of rye fields where the locals seemed friendly and children passed the day playing soccer.

"It looks like Nebraska - with palm trees," said Lance Cpl. Justin Howe, 25.

Two days after cordoning off this restive city 30 miles west of Baghdad, Marines were beginning to view the quiet, residential neighborhood as relatively safe. Local farmers appeared receptive to their calls for cooperation, and Marines had offered to pay compensation to a few whose property was damaged by their operations.

So when a squad of Marines emerged from behind their covered checkpoint yesterday to begin a foot patrol, enemy fire was not what they expected.

Within seconds, everyone was diving for cover amid a barrage of bullets.

"There was fire all around my feet," said one of the Marines.

One American was hit by a bullet that pierced his helmet and lodged in his head. He was expected to survive. Another Marine was shot in the leg.

Tanks, Humvees and helicopters quickly arrived to attack parts of the neighborhood, destroying one building. After treating the Marine's head injury, one soldier grabbed his M-16 and joined the strike.

Insurgents were demonstrating a resolve of their own.

When Marines entered the neighborhood in tanks and helicopters, insurgents held their positions and fired back with rifles, mortars and small arms.

"We will continue to resist them," said Abu Khamis Khulaifawi, who described himself as part of the insurgency in Fallujah. "We have enough mortars, enough rocket-propelled grenades and enough light arms."

Insurgents blocked streets to divert military vehicles and have used an anti-aircraft gun to try to shoot down helicopters.

They are using buses to transport fighters and have darted in with cars to retrieve their dead.

Some residents praised the insurgents for their tenacity.

"It seems that they have succeeded in preventing the Americans from entering the city," said Ali Naif, a university student.

But Maj. Brandon McGowan, executive officer of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Regiment, said the Marines' mission was going smoothly and that he was not surprised by the insurgents' willingness to attack.

"If they want to come out and fight, that's fine with us," he said. "That way we don't have to go house to house to find them. They'll fall into our hands more easily."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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