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They came here to die

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Insurgents in western Iraq fight to finish

By Ellen Knickmeyer

JARAMI, Iraq, May 10 - Screaming "Allahu Akbar'' to the end, the foreign fighters lay on their backs in a narrow crawl space under a house and blasted their machine guns up through the concrete floor with bullets designed to penetrate tanks. They fired at U.S. Marines, driving back wave after wave as the Americans tried to retrieve a fallen comrade.

Through Sunday night and into Monday morning, the foreign fighters battled on, their screaming voices gradually fading to just one. In the end, it took five Marine assaults, grenades, a tank firing bunker-busting artillery rounds, 500-pound bombs unleashed by an F/A-18 attack plane and a point-blank attack by a rocket launcher to quell them.

The Marines got their fallen man, suffering one more dead and at least five wounded in the process. And according to survivors of the battle, the foreign fighters near the Syrian border proved to be everything their reputation had suggested: fierce, determined and lethal to the last.

"They came here to die," said Gunnery Sgt. Chuck Hurley, commander of the team from the 1st Platoon, Lima Company, of the Marines' 3rd Battalion, 25th Regiment, that battled the insurgents in the one-story house in Ubaydi, about 15 miles east of the Syrian border.

"They were willing to stay in place and die with no hope," Hurley said Tuesday. "All they wanted was to take us with them.''

The fighting that began Sunday in Ubaydi was an unplanned opening phase of a massive Marine offensive in Iraq's far northwest against the foreign fighters who U.S. and Iraqi commanders say are crossing the Syrian border to join the Iraqi insurgency. By Monday, more than 1,000 Marines backed by Cobra helicopters and Hornet warplanes were pouring into an area north of the Euphrates River where few American troops and no Iraqi forces have been for at least a year.

U.S. commanders say they believe that foreigner leaders of the insurgency have established a refuge north of the Euphrates they use to channel incoming fighters, arms and support to insurgents in the rest of Iraq.

"We're taking down an enemy safe haven," said Lt. Col. Tim Mundy, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Regiment, which along with the 3rd Battalion, 25th Regiment, did the bulk of the fighting at Ubaydi.

U.S. officers say the most-wanted insurgent leader in Iraq, Jordanian-born Abu Musab Zarqawi, is being sheltered among tribal leaders in Haditha and Hit, two towns 80 and 110 miles downriver. The Americans say Zarqawi was almost caught in February at a checkpoint between the towns. Other sightings since have placed him in other towns on the south side of the Euphrates. In Haqlaniyah, Zarqawi felt bold enough to preach a sermon at a mosque, according to at least one report to U.S. forces.

U.S and Iraqi officials blame Zarqawi and other foreign fighters for many of the insurgency's bloodiest attacks, including suicide bombings that are claiming dozens of lives almost daily in Iraq.

Fighting continued Tuesday north of the Euphrates, where the Marines' heavy-caliber weapons, mortars and artillery could be heard booming across the green river at dusk.

At least three Marines have been killed in the offensive. Marine Col. Stephen Davis, commander of Marine Regimental Combat Team 2, said he believed at least 75 foreign fighters were killed Sunday alone, after the offensive opened prematurely with the clash at Ubaydi.

The ambush

At noon Sunday, Marines were waiting on the bank of the Euphrates for U.S. Army engineers to finish erecting a temporary bridge when insurgents opened fire from Ubaydi, less than a mile away. They fired AK-47 assault rifles at helicopter gunships overhead and pounded the waiting Marines with mortar rounds -- including one that landed yards from a Humvee carrying the operation's commanding officers.

The Marines pressed against the walls of a ruined home for protection and waited for the mortars to stop. When they did, one officer said: "Let's go to Ubaydi."

Lima Company and a company from the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Regiment, entered the town. Insurgents -- dozens of them, Marines said later -- met them with AK-47 fire and rocket-propelled grenades. In the first hours, one Marine was killed and at least seven were wounded.

Lima Company battled its way through town, at one point exchanging fire with fighters on a the roof of a mosque and forcing them down. The mosque's loudspeakers screamed Arabic that the Marines could not understand, but they said that since it was past time for prayers, they assumed the loudspeakers were rallying forces for attack.

According to Hurley and others who recounted the fighting that followed, Lima Company's Marines searched each house they passed. They turned up weapons cache after weapons cache: bombs made to be dropped from airplanes, a bicycle with a seat made of explosives and an antenna for remote-control triggering, a vest rigged with explosives, a car rigged with bombs, mortar tubes, rocket launchers with new backpacks full of rockets, artillery shells.

The costly equipment, as well as body armor later recovered from the bodies of dead insurgents, suggested that the fighters were foreigners, the military said. Though the level of foreigners' involvement in the insurgency has been disputed for nearly two years, Muslim men have come to Iraq from neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia and from as far away as Chechnya and Indonesia to fight the United States and its allies.

The Marines also found Soviet-designed PKM machine guns and belts of armor-piercing ammunition. In contrast, Lima Company was armed with M-16 assault rifles and carried nothing comparable -- nothing that could penetrate walls and floors and still pack enough force to kill.

That was what awaited the Marines on the last block they cleared, at the last house. The first Marine there found the gate in the high walls around the house open; the front door was locked.

Cratered the walls

"As soon as he kicks the door, the machine-gun fire cuts him down," said Hurley, a Dayton, Ohio, police officer serving in the Marine reserves. The Marine survived, but a second fell as well, fatally wounded. From inside, a foreign fighter fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the door.

At some point, the screamed prayers began: "Allahu Akbar" -- "God is great."

Marines fell, unable to tell the source of the screams or the shots. They fired blindly, as machine-gun rounds cratered the walls and floors around them.

"Our rounds couldn't get through the walls,'' Hurley said.

Survivors crawled out of the house under fire, unable to take the fatally wounded Marine with them. In the back of the house, Marines spotted two men running out. They fired. The two -- whose thick curly hair, olive skin and delicate features indicated they were not Iraqis, Marines said -- died at the back door, still holding their weapons.

Thinking the barrage had come from the two men they had just killed, the Marines reentered the walled compound. Sgt. Dennis Woullard, a Marine reservist on the Biloxi, Miss., police force, dragged out the first fallen Marine.

Farther inside, other Marines searched the house. One reached for the door of a storage closet under a stairwell. "As soon as he touches the door, the machine gun fires and cuts him down," Hurley said.

The Marines retreated, unable to bring their wounded colleague with them. Another wave went in to try to retrieve him, not realizing he was already beyond help. Machine-gun fire drove them out.

The Marines began to suspect that the insurgents were firing from a bunker somewhere in the house, Hurley said. They called in a tank, as other armored vehicles ferried the wounded away for evacuation by helicopter.

The tank fired, one round hitting a propane tank inside the compound and engulfing part of the house in a ball of orange flame. Tank cannon fired seven rounds in all, some of them meant to destroy bunkers.

‘Pure evil’

The Marines went in a fourth time. Bullets, and one chanting voice, met them.

"Nobody should have survived" the tank assault, Hurley later said in amazement.

"The whole scene, it was just pure evil inside the house," said Woullard, who came out of the first foray into the house with a frayed helmet and bruised temple from one machine-gun round and a pierced water bag on his back from another.

"I've never seen anything like this in my life," said Woullard, who fought at Nasiriyah in the first days of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. "It was an all-out ambush."

The insurgents' armor-piercing bullets were penetrating the house's interior and external walls and the outer walls of the compound, some smacking into walls across the street.

Hurley and other Marines, still under fire, were able to get to the body of the second fallen Marine through the holes that the tank had blown in the house but could not pull it past steel reinforcing bars that jutted from the collapsed walls.

"Not a way I'd want to treat a Marine's body. But I know [the second fallen Marine] well enough to know no way he'd want a Marine to die to get his body," Hurley said.

Reluctantly, Marines called in an F/A-18 attack plane, which dropped two bombs at midnight. One failed to explode. The second missed the house.

Still under fire, the Marines holed up for the night in Ubaydi.

At daylight Monday, a staff sergeant skilled in rocketry set up a launcher in the street across from the house. Fired from a dozen or so yards, the rockets collapsed the walls over the fighters' hiding place -- a crawl space behind the door under the stairwell.

When the Marines entered a final time, the daylight finally showed them where the bullets had come from: the floor beneath their feet. The insurgents had lain faceup on the ground below, with barely enough room to point their weapons upward, Marines said. They simply blasted through the floor.

The Marines found the last foreign fighters there, dead. There were at least two, and it was unclear whether they had bled to death overnight or been killed in the morning's rocket volley, Hurley and other Marines said.

New lethal tactic

Suspecting explosives might be in the crawl space, the Marines didn't try to count the bodies closely or retrieve them, they said. But they dropped a grenade into the crawl space, just to make sure.

The ambush at Ubaydi was a new tactic, carried out lethally, Marines said.

"No one's ever seen or heard of guys getting attacked from under a house," Hurley said Tuesday, as the exhausted young men under his command slept in other rooms of a house in Jarami. "And just the idea of a machine gun being able to fire through concrete, to get to us," Hurley said, without finishing his sentence.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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