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Saturday, November 20, 2004

The New York Times > International > Middle East > In Falluja, Young Marines Saw the Savagery of an Urban War

The New York Times > International > Middle East > In Falluja, Young Marines Saw the Savagery of an Urban WarALLUJA, Iraq, Nov. 18 - Eight days after the Americans entered the city on foot, a pair of marines wound their way up the darkened innards of a minaret, shot through with holes by an American tank.

As the marines inched upward, a burst of gunfire rang down, fired by an insurgent hiding in the top of the tower. The bullets hit the first marine in the face, his blood spattering the marine behind him. The marine in the rear tumbled backward down the stairwell, while Lance Cpl. William Miller, age 22, lay in silence halfway up, mortally wounded.

"Miller!" the marines called from below. "Miller!"

With that, the marines' near mystical commandment against leaving a comrade behind seized the group. One after another, the young marines dashed into the minaret, into darkness and into gunfire, and wound their way up the stairs.

After four attempts, Corporal Miller's lifeless body emerged from the tower, his comrades choking and covered with dust. With more insurgents closing in, the marines ran through volleys of machine-gun fire back to their base.

"I was trying to be careful, but I was trying to get him out, you know what I'm saying?" Lance Cpl. Michael Gogin, 19, said afterward.

So went eight days of combat for this Iraqi city, the most sustained period of street-to-street fighting that Americans have encountered since the Vietnam War. The proximity gave the fighting a hellish intensity, with soldiers often close enough to look their enemies in the eyes.

For a correspondent who has covered a half dozen armed conflicts, including the war in Iraq since its start in March 2003, the fighting seen while traveling with a frontline unit in Falluja was a qualitatively different experience, a leap into a different kind of battle.

From the first rockets vaulting out of the city as the marines moved in, the noise and feel of the battle seemed altogether extraordinary; at other times, hardly real at all. The intimacy of combat, this plunge into urban warfare, was new to this generation of American soldiers, but it is a kind of fighting they will probably see again: a grinding struggle to root out guerrillas entrenched in a city, on streets marked in a language few American soldiers could comprehend.

The price for the Americans so far: 51 dead and 425 wounded, a number that may yet increase but that already exceeds the toll from any battle in the Iraq war.

Marines in Harm's Way

The 150 marines with whom I traveled, Bravo Company of the First Battalion, Eighth Marines, had it as tough as any unit in the fight. They moved through the city almost entirely on foot, into the heart of the resistance, rarely protected by tanks or troop carriers, working their way through Falluja's narrow streets with 75-pound packs on their backs.

In eight days of fighting, Bravo Company took 36 casualties, including 6 dead, meaning that the unit's men had about a one-in-four chance of being wounded or killed in little more than a week.

The sounds, sights and feel of the battle were as old as war itself, and as new as the Pentagon's latest weapons systems. The eerie pop from the cannon of the AC-130 gunship, prowling above the city at night, firing at guerrillas who were often only steps away from Americans on the ground. The weird buzz of the Dragon Eye pilotless airplane, hovering over the battlefield as its video cameras beamed real-time images back to the base.

The glow of the insurgents' flares, throwing daylight over a landscape to help them spot their targets: us.

The nervous shove of a marine scrambling for space along a brick wall as tracer rounds ricocheted above.

The silence between the ping of the shell leaving its mortar tube and the explosion when it strikes.

The screams of the marines when one of their comrades, Cpl. Jake Knospler, lost part of his jaw to a hand grenade.

"No, no, no!" the marines shouted as they dragged Corporal Knospler from the darkened house where the bomb went off. It was 2 a.m., the sky dark without a moon. "No, no, no!"

Nothing in the combat I saw even remotely resembled the scenes regularly flashed across movie screens; even so, they often seemed no more real.



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