United States marines backed by Iraqi troops occupied about three-quarters of Fallujah on Thursday, but were facing an enormous task in rooting out determined insurgents, many of whom appeared to have gone underground.
“Some people are pushing through the city fast for the information [media] campaign and they’re leaving the real work for us,” a marine officer said in Fallujah, on condition that he not be named.
As the marines, many aged 19 or 20, moved carefully through the Jolan neighbourhood — which was taken early in the offensive — they found themselves in nasty firefights with insurgents who had hidden during the initial sweep.
One marine was killed in the courtyard of a villa when he became pinned down trying to shoot dead snipers clad in black who were firing from a rooftop. A translator working for US forces said the sharpshooters were calling out slogans that identified them as either Saudi or Yemeni.
At another building where fire was pinning the troops down early on Thursday, they chased and eventually caught an Iraqi man wearing brown clothing, and took him away for questioning.
Several caches of weapons turned up during the searching. In one building, the troops retrieved about 360kg of explosives and blew it up, sending an impressive mushroom cloud into the sky.
More disturbingly, they found several buildings with their basements blocked off, a sign they said that the resistance fighters in this fiercely independent majority Sunni Muslim city may have barricaded themselves underground.
The troops also found signs of utter ruthlessness.
In one street, the AFP reporter saw a corpse with its feet hacked off.
In a house, the marines found a young man about 18 years old with a bullet in his chest; signs they say that die-hard rebels are holding guns to the heads of those whose would otherwise surrender.
“My belief is that hard-core insurgents are executing insurgents that don’t want to pursue the fight against multinational forces,” marine Captain Drew McNulty said.
He said that in fighting on Wednesday, his charges had killed 17 to 20 insurgents in a three-to-four block radius over a few hours.
The figures could not be independently verified but the reporter counted at least 12 bodies.
In Fallujah’s dusty streets, cats fed off the corpses.
Overnight, as the marines were trying to wind down ever-so-slightly after an exhausting, fear-filled day, a rebel ran out behind them, firing an automatic weapon and threw a grenade.
Miraculously, the reporter said, no one was hurt.
They chased the man down and found him peering out from a water tank.
“We saw him in there and opened up,” Corporal Benjamin Ainsworth said.
On Thursday, the man’s body was still lying in an alley in a black pool of gasoline with a hand reaching out into the air. — Sapa-AFP