Life on the Front Lines

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U.S. Marines smoke after battling Iraqi insurgents near Fallujah

Dawn in Fallujah, and the men of the 2nd battalion, 2nd Marines' Easy Company, part of the 1st U.S. Marine Expeditionary Force, are withdrawing under fire. At 4:30 that morning, 150 Marines had moved into the southern edge of the city to destroy two bunkers that insurgents were using to fire on their positions. Easy's Third Platoon moved in to inspect one of the buildings, which had been hit the day before by a 500-lb. bomb. Platoon Commander 2nd Lieut. Ilario Pantano reported back that they had found gun emplacements and binoculars and that the building was still usable by insurgents.

Another Marine later recalled the smell of death. Tank fire would finish the house off. Then, to their north, they spotted the movement of three or four men. Some of them appeared to be carrying guns.

The Marines aren't taking chances. Two days earlier, seven Marines were wounded in an ambush on this road. The Marines sprint away from the building as the first tank round thunders in. Soon after they trot past the rest of the company, the whole group starts to take fire. "I can hear yelling and talking to the north," a Marine tells Captain Bradley Weston, the company's commanding officer. A bunch of Marines jump up and fire back in the general direction of the noise.

Others lay down white phosphorus to mark the area where the insurgents' fire seems to have come from. A tank pumps in more tracer. From the roof of an unfinished building, Marines blast the target with machine guns, providing protective cover. The rest of the Marines pull back, running across a field and over to bushes, urged on by yelling noncommissioned officers (NCOS). They expect the insurgents to harass them all the way back to their base. One young man falls and lies prone on the ground, his head pressed down as if afraid something might hit him. His hands shake uncontrollably.

Chachi, a member of Easy Company's intelligence unit who asks to be identified only by his nickname, turns to me as we run for cover.

"Having fun?" he asks, making clear that he is. "This is what it's all about."

From afar, the fighting in and around Fallujah since the Marines laid siege to the city a month ago appears to be a series of brief skirmishes and sporadic gunfights. But it doesn't look that way to anyone who spent time on the ground with the Marines of Easy Company.

The Marines are at war with a well-organized and relentless enemy. A cease-fire was theoretically in effect last week as Marine commanders and local leaders attempted to reach a deal that would forestall a potentially bloody assault on the city. The insurgents routinely broke the truce, lobbing mortars and rockets at the Marines' positions from every direction. The men of Easy Company were not enthusiastic about the truce either: twice last week they thought they were on the verge of attacking the city, only to be told to stand down. U.S. commanders last Friday announced that a new, 1,100-man Iraqi force, led by a former general in Saddam Hussein's army with a Republican Guard background, was assuming responsibility for disarming the estimated 2,000 insurgents believed to be still holed up in Fallujah.

Though this provided an opportunity for Iraqis to prove they can take control of their own security, the Marines felt angry, frustrated and deeply skeptical that the deal would work. As they packed up their equipment and cleared out from their forward operating base, they were fuming. Despite the agreement, the Marines were still taking heavy fire from the insurgents. "This is so surreal," says Pantano, after being briefed on the agreement. "I had to write it down in my journal to make sure I wasn't making it up." This is how the war looks to the Americans on the front lines.

Easy Company set up camp inside Fallujah on April 24, three weeks after four U.S. contractors were killed and their bodies burned and mutilated. In response to that atrocity, military commanders pledged that U.S. forces would bring the killers to justice and take back Fallujah. But the Marines have held back from an all-out assault on the city.

The 200 members of Easy Company live in an abandoned administrative building that consists of 10 rooms. One is the "lounge," home to the ammunition and the commanding officer. In the other rooms, on both sides of the 5-ft.-wide corridor, and even in the bathrooms, men sleep in their clothes, with their weapons, for as long as and whenever they can. There is no electricity, sanitation or water; ready-to-eat meals and 300 gal. of drinking water are brought in daily from the Marines' headquarters at Camp Fallujah, a dangerous 40-min. drive away.

By the time I arrived at the base, the Marines were planning to strike back at insurgent positions at the edge of Fallujah that have been the source of daily harassment. Since Easy's arrival, its patrols had been engaged by the insurgents an average of three times a day.

The officers tell the Marines to be ready to move out at 4 the next morning. The Marines are temporarily diverted by the arrival of care packages from home. Staff Sergeant Chris Bailey, gruff and tattooed, opens a massive parcel of honey buns, potato chips, Winn-Dixie sugar drink and cigarettes. "I miss my mother," he says. He is interested only in cigarettes. Pantano, a former commodities trader and television producer from New York City, receives clippings from the New York Times and cigars "rolled by a Cuban guy on Ninth Avenue." At 3:45 p.m., things begin to heat up. Loud explosions from bombs dropped by U.S. F-16s can be heard in the center of the city. The insurgents respond with two salvos of mortar fire against Easy Company's base. Captain John Bailey, a soft-spoken F-18 pilot temporarily assigned here as a forward air controller, hauls his laser equipment onto the roof. He focuses his laser on a two-story building at the edge of town. He radios the pilot of an F-16 and orders an air strike. "Come on, bird," he says to himself. "You're going to fry this thing." Then: "This is going to be a 500-pounder." Then: "27 seconds." A red flash sends up a cloud of black smoke that turns white as it reaches hundreds of feet into the air. Bailey calls in a second strike, which reduces the building to rubble and dust.

"F______ awesome," says a Marine over Bailey's radio. Another one calls the scene "modern art." Seconds later a Marine shouts from an observation post on the roof: "Incoming!" Mortars again. Bailey points his laser toward another set of buildings. One bomb misses the target, but a second strike sends bits of the building flying high into the sky, to the delight of watching Marines. Captain Weston has another target in mind. Bailey shrugs. "It's the [commanding officer]'s call," he says. "We've got to rebuild this f______ country sooner or later. We don't want to blow up too much of it."

Inside the base, the euphoria subsides as night approaches. The company's officers review plans for the predawn operation. Staff Sergeant Jason Glew writes a message for his wife in an official notebook--"in case I don't get lucky" when the Marines head out tomorrow. "I told her if I get killed she should fix that f______ fence before the end of the summer." The men are expecting a nasty fight from the insurgents, who have surprised them with the sophistication of their tactics. Chachi, a former private investigator and "a suit in Smith Barney," says the insurgents "have a pretty good command structure. Perhaps not as formal as ours but certainly not a bunch of farmers throwing something together." Chachi says the Marines "are under observation pretty much most of the time." At 9 p.m., while some of the men gather outside to smoke and chat, wearing their body armor in the humid night air, three illumination flares float above, followed by three loud detonations.

"Is that us or them?" a Marine asks. It's them. "M____________ are illuminating now," someone else says. The enemy is getting professional.

The Marines always prepare for the worst. At 4:30 a.m., about 150 Marines, backed by Humvees armed with .50-cal. machine guns, push out in a staggered formation, about 10 yds. apart on both edges of the dirt road. To the right, we hear explosions and loud shooting. As we advance, the noise of fighting is joined by the frantic barking of dogs and the lowing of cattle. At a point where the track forks right, a group of Marines sets up mortars and fires them into a building believed to be a reinforced bunker. The building goes up in flames. "Move! Move!" says an nco.

Weighed down by their weapons and body armor, the Marines move on toward a second bunker. It is taken out, and within minutes we are pulling back under fire. We run across a field divided by an irrigation ditch. "Get in that f______ ditch!" an nco shouts. We sink to our waist in the water, scrabbling for grip in the slippery mud.

"Get out of that f______ ditch!" the same nco yells, just as our feet touch bottom.

We dash across the field and pause for breath. When we reach the base, it's already daybreak. A sense of euphoria kicks in. Some faces are pale, others flushed. Some Marines light cigarettes and laugh about the night's adventures. The company has taken no casualties.

"This has been really good for morale," says 2nd Lieut. Nathan Dmochowksi. "We have taken so much s___ from those positions." A couple of Marines flash sly smiles at me. "Stick around," says one of them. "This is only the beginning." Soon the elation dissipates. Hours after returning from the operation, the Marines receive word that they are to pull back to allow the new Iraqi force to enter the city. U.S. commanders insist that the Marines will maintain a presence around the city. Many in Easy Company view the decision as a retreat from the U.S. pledge to drive the "bad guys" out of Fallujah. "Does this remind you," Pantano says, "of another part of the world in the early '70s?"

Few Marines on the ground trust the Iraqi forces to disarm the insurgents on their own. "If the Iraqi officers hope to get cooperation from the bad guys in Fallujah, it is because they are complicit," says a U.S. officer. Many Marines in the company are aware an assault on the city would have been a bloody affair for both Iraqis and Marines. Some are relieved the attack will not be taking place. But they suspect that in a couple of weeks or a couple of months, they will be sent back to finish the job. "What you saw today is only 10% of what they would have got if we had gone into the city," says Staff Sergeant Naaman Clark. "But this is an election year, and politics got in the way. We're going to be here for a long time."

As he speaks, the Marines are waiting for their engineers to arrive and destroy the base fortifications. If a war has been averted for the time being, it doesn't feel like peace. A sniper team comes under fire and requests extraction. U.S. planes make bombing runs over the central part of the city. As evening falls, the insurgents are still firing mortars at the Easy Company base. The company fires back with its own mortars, and a patrol prepares to go out after our attackers.

The company asks for permission to patrol the area, but battalion headquarters rejects the request. One frustrated Marine starts to hum that tune you hear at the circus, the one that signals the entry of the clowns.