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Sunday, November 14

Marine unit sweeps Fallujah, tries to quell 'reinfestation'

By Gordon Trowbridge | The Army Times

FALLUJAH, Iraq - U.S. troops occupying this rebellious city are engaged in a painstaking, manpower-intensive and dangerous house-by-house effort to root out insurgents fighting the American-backed Iraqi government.

U.S. military officials say most of Fallujah is under their control, but the city remains perilous, as Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines discovered in two days of intense combat.

Troops from the Hawaii-based unit, occupying a sector in the northeast part of the city, fought a trio of firefights, one of them involving roughly 30 insurgents that left at least 12 rebels dead.

``This is some of the most physically intensive type of warfare,'' Capt. Lee Johnson, Alpha Company's commander, said Sunday. ``It takes a lot out of the Marines, a lot of resources, and it's difficult to control.''

Unlike combat in the open, the urban warfare here is at extremely close quarters, making it difficult for U.S. troops to lean on their massive advantage in artillery and air power.

And even as his Marines cleared one house at a time, Johnson worried that insurgents would simply slip away and reoccupy territory his troops once controlled. ``There is always the danger of reinfestation - these guys are masters of it,'' Johnson said.

Alpha Company ran smack into Fallujah's perils on Saturday, as one of the company's three platoons was sweeping through a city block, examining houses one by one for insurgents or weapons caches.

As Marines moved up to the door of a building, the windows exploded with AK-47 fire. Winning the fight took an anti-tank weapon launched at one window, reinforcement from a nearby platoon and, after surviving insurgents had been chased into a nearby building, a 500-pound bomb dropped by a U.S. fighter jet circling overhead.

``They let us get right up to the door. It seemed just like all the other buildings,'' said Cpl. Robert Enriquez Jr., 22, of Woodbridge, Va., whom company leaders credited with firing the AT-4 rocket at the house at a crucial moment in the 20-minute firefight.

``It was like being on the (firing) range when someone yelled, `Open fire!' ''

Sunday saw less combat, but a patrol discovered an immense collection of weapons abandoned by insurgents. Neighboring houses contained more than a dozen artillery shells as well as rifles, anti-tank mines, an improvised mine made of two funnels and a homemade plastic explosive, a half-dozen mortar shells and assorted rockets and pipe bombs.

Another concern for U.S. commanders: the performance of Iraqi army soldiers.

A 40-man Iraqi unit had been attached to Alpha Company four days before the Fallujah operation began. By the night Alpha entered the city, the number had shrunk to 22, almost certainly through desertions.

During Saturday's firefight, the Iraqi platoon had been patrolling a neighboring block. When U.S. officers urged them to support the Marines under attack, only a handful followed, while most remained in place, confused and frightened.

``The frustration is, there are about three of them who are motivated, who want to fight,'' Johnson said. ``And I want to make those three Marines.''

Despite the difficulties, Lt. Col. Mike Ramos, who as 1st Battalion's commander leads Alpha and three other infantry companies, said he was confident the battle was well in hand and that he had enough troops to complete the mission.

``We're right in the sweet spot on the number of troops,'' Ramos said, adding that more troops would make coordination more difficult and increase the chances of friendly fire incidents.

``We're carefully tracking the trends that we see,'' he said, ``and there are clearly some patterns the insurgents are following that we are exploiting to clear the city.''