The mosque had been taken, but the fire kept coming.
“We’ve got chunks of territory, but these guys [insurgents] are all over the place,” Marine Lt. Brandon Turner said Thursday as he stood amid shattered glass and concrete under the green dome of the Khulafah Rashid mosque, his fellow Marines resting on a plush red carpet.
“They just keep coming at us.”
There is no real pattern to the fighting in Fallouja -- a fierce, chaotic battle that continued to rage Thursday, house to house, street to street. But if there is any accepted truth so far, it is this: The insurgents are not going away easily.
And that truth has a corollary: The Marines are doing all they can to draw the guerrillas out and kill them.
“The enemy is right where we want him. He’s coming to us,” said Lt. Col. Gareth Brandl, commander of the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, which has experienced perhaps the toughest fight of all the units penetrating the city. “And we’re killing him.”
Many of the 3,000 to 5,000 insurgents estimated to have been in Fallouja before the invasion are believed to have fled this Sunni Muslim city west of Baghdad. But those who have remained are tenacious, even though Marines say they have killed hundreds of them.
Guerrilla snipers crouch in buildings and amid the rubble. Small squads of insurgents rush Marine positions. Dozens of rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs, have struck tanks and other military vehicles. A pickup with six men carrying rocket-propelled grenade launchers was spotted near one mosque.
Several snipers on rooftops halted the advance of a platoon of Marines heading out on foot Wednesday to attack insurgents in a mosque where they had been firing on U.S. troops.
“They seem to be communicating with each other,” said 1st Sgt. Jose Andrade of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, as he crouched on a main street, taking cover. “It makes it harder to get at them.”
Marines on the streets are constant targets. Troops accustomed to getting around on foot are being transported in tracked amphibious vehicles whenever possible. But street patrols inevitably must be done on foot, with no lapse of concentration.
“The enemy just pops out of anywhere and fires off rounds and RPGs,” said Cpl. Adam Golden, 21. “We’re just looking to get him when he pops out.”
Marines have advanced through more than half of Fallouja. But no one here believed Thursday that the city was close to being under control.
“We’ve still got to impose security,” said Lt. Col. Michael Ramos, commander of the 1st Battalion of the 3rd Marine Regiment.
U.S. forces are doing all they can to force the guerrillas into the open.
Army psychological operations teams have been broadcasting Arabic-language tapes excoriating fighters in the most explicit terms.
“Liars and cowards, you are nothing but dogs!” goes the text of one tape, the dog reference especially insulting in the Arab world. “You have no honor! You hide behind women and children!”
The idea is not to offend most Iraqis, said Army Spc. Jose Rincon, 24, who is heading one of the psychological operations teams. “We just want to get the terrorists angry enough to fight.”
On occasion, guerrillas put up fights for buildings, as was the case when Marines attacked a former Iraqi national guard headquarters. The troops called in tanks and flattened the place.
More frequently, though, key buildings -- such as Fallouja’s City Hall and various mosques associated with the resistance -- have been taken without major battles.
Then, once the Marines are ensconced, the insurgents arrive in waves.
“Getting in here wasn’t so hard,” Gunnery Sgt. James Cully said of the municipal compound seized largely without a fight Wednesday. “But since we got here the firing hasn’t stopped.”
Gun battles resounded Thursday around the City Hall complex, which was filled with abandoned and wrecked office equipment. The deep thud of the Marines’ heavy weapons matched the distinctive crackle of Kalashnikov assault rifle fire. Mortar rounds and exploding rockets shook the buildings.
From rooftops, plumes of smoke rose into the air -- the result of U.S. artillery and airstrikes, or possibly mortar shells and rockets from insurgents. Flares and illumination rounds lighted up the night sky. Marines demolished buildings as guerrillas scrambled amid the ruins and through alleyways. Roof-to-roof gun battles raged.
“The enemy is like camel spiders,” said Lance Cpl. Rajai Hakki, an Alpha Company interpreter. “You try to squash ‘em and they crawl to the next spot.”
Sometimes, insurgent tactics can be more complex. On the morning of the invasion, a squad of 30 guerrillas drew Marines into an intersection, then opened fire with AK-47s and grenades. Three Marines were hurt.
“They pretty much set us up,” said Marine Lance Cpl. Craig Winthrow, who escaped uninjured when a grenade exploded a few feet from him.
In that instance, several guerrillas were killed in the initial engagement. Others were wiped out by C-130 gunships that prowled the skies looking for fleeing fighters.
Mosques being used as military positions by insurgents have come under attack from Marines. The troops usually enter the facilities on the heels of U.S.-allied Iraqi forces after the guerrillas are flushed out. Laser-guided bombs have felled at least two minarets in which snipers were holed up. Marines have found extensive weapons caches and anti-American propaganda in several mosques.
“We have a lot of mosques in our AO [area of operations], and to the best of my knowledge in only one instance did we not receive fire from a mosque,” said Capt. Matt Nodine, judge advocate for the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment. “These mosques have lost the protections of the Geneva Convention. We are not here to destroy mosques. But the terrorists are using them and we will go after them.”
At the majestic Khulafah Rashid mosque, on the highway that divides the northern and southern portions of Fallouja, Marines attacked after taking sniper fire from one of the facility’s two minarets. That minaret now lies crumbled after being struck by a 500-pound laser-guided bomb from a U.S. aircraft.
The U.S.-led attacks on mosques have also served to halt the announcements from mosque loudspeakers urging people to resist the Americans. The taped recordings castigating the “infidels” could be heard throughout the first days of the invasion, infuriating Marines.
In one mosque, Iraqi troops fighting with the Marines discovered what might be the body of Abdullah Janabi, a cleric who was considered a guerrilla leader in Fallouja, said Lt. Col. Michael Ramos, commander of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment.
Ramos said the identity had yet to be confirmed, but the body appeared to be Janabi, who was a member of the town’s de facto governing council during the insurgency. Iraqi military officials declined to comment on Janabi’s possible death.
There was no confirmed sign of two other high-value targets: Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born militant leader said to be operating from Fallouja; and Omar Hadid, an Iraqi extremist said to be allied with Zarqawi. U.S. commanders speculate that both may have fled the city in the face of the U.S.-Iraqi onslaught.
Few civilians appeared to have remained in Fallouja, which will probably stay a war zone for some days more.
Once noncombatant residents begin trickling back in, the tableau of destroyed buildings, burned-out cars, battered mosques and piles of rubble will probably make their city all but unrecognizable.
U.S. officials say tens of millions of dollars have been set aside for the rebuilding of Fallouja. Thousands of newly trained Iraqi police and armed forces are said to be ready to be brought into town once a semblance of order has been restored.
Whether the people of Fallouja will accept the U.S.-designed plan remains to be seen. American officials cite as a model Najaf, where an August offensive against Shiite Muslim guerrillas destroyed much of the Old City. A massive rebuilding plan is underway, and Iraqi police have maintained order.
In Najaf, however, the guerrillas were known to be unpopular with a conservative, business-oriented population. The Shiites of Najaf, long suppressed under President Saddam Hussein, welcomed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in spring 2003.
The Sunnis of Fallouja have never embraced the U.S. military presence.
Clashes between U.S. forces and the citizens of Fallouja began almost immediately after Hussein was toppled. U.S. troops shot more than a dozen people dead here in spring 2003 clashes after Army positions came under fire, U.S. officials said. Many in Fallouja called it a massacre. For months after the fall of Hussein, not a shot was fired at U.S. forces in Najaf.
For now, it’s difficult to gauge the sentiment of Fallouja residents because there are so few around. The dearth of civilians has been a plus for the Marines.
“We have got to take advantage of this period when the civilians are not present to kill as many enemy as we can,” said Ramos, the lieutenant colonel. “We have to keep pressing this against the enemy before the civilians return.”
McDonnell is traveling with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment.